For HR managers and employees alike, Halloween can be more of a trick than a treat. While workplace Halloween festivities can create an atmosphere that helps co-workers have fun and get to know each other, the fall holiday's central themes are dressing up and scaring people, which not everyone finds enjoyable.
"Group celebrations are a great way to create connection in a workplace, but they must be handled with care," said Mark DeFee, a workplace wellness consultant who's worked with firms such as IBM, Verizon and Motorola. "After all, Halloween can be polarizing for some people. A workplace needs to respect all points of view, so any Halloween-related celebration in the office needs to be optional."
[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: Halloween Horrors at Work]
One employee's innocent fun might be another employee's Halloween horror. For example, at one company's pre-pandemic Halloween party, a male employee dressed up as the Incredible Hulk, which was fun for him, but he then started lifting female employees into the air without their consent, which was less fun for them—and exposed the company (and the overenthusiastic Hulk) to potential legal liability.
Here are some guidelines for getting more treats and fewer tricks out of your office Halloween celebrations.
1. Communicate a clear intention for the festivities. You can't plan for everything that may come up during a Halloween celebration. There's always a chance something unexpected might happen (like the Hulk picking up co-workers), and somebody might get upset—or worse.
To avoid Halloween nightmares, be sure to clearly express an intention of creating connection through a secular and respectful approach to Halloween in the office, and be prepared to listen to people's different perspectives about whatever plans you make.
2. Involve employees in Halloween planning. "Organizations should trust employees enough to include them in defining guidelines and ground rules for any Halloween celebration, asking employees to use common sense in their decisions around costumes and celebrations," said author and HR guru David Ulrich.
For example, your organization could set up a celebration committee to brainstorm party ideas, define and communicate guidelines, and manage the party budget.
3. Let people opt out. Allow people who want to opt out of festivities to work from home that day or otherwise be away from the distractions of your Halloween happenings. "Expecting someone to put their head down and work quietly in their cubicle while an office Halloween celebration goes on around them is unrealistic," DeFee said.
4. Set guardrails around costumes. Halloween is a time to have fun, not get political or religious or push any other agenda. So reinforce that costumes must meet work safety requirements and comply with your dress code. It might help to set a theme for costumes, such as video game characters or superheroes.
If people are wearing costumes all day in the office, they should also be able to do their jobs while in costume. "Dressing up in the office is fun, but it shouldn't distract people from doing their work," Ulrich explained.
Emphasize to each employee that even on Halloween, the basics of mutual respect still apply in the office, including wearing attire that does not malign or make fun of any protected group. It's a good idea to provide specific examples of Halloween costumes that comply with your dress code, as well as those that cross the line.
5. Have costume contests, with prizes. Try breaking the contest into categories such as best monster or superhero costume, most creative team/couple's costume, or best historical figure costume. The prizes might be company clothing, coffee mugs or other branded swag.
6. Host Halloween-related team trivia, with prizes. Maybe offer quotes from scary films and ask teams to name the film, or ask questions about monsters or places associated with Halloween (such as Salem, Mass., or Transylvania). Good Halloween trivia is just an online search away.
7. Decorate the office by theme or area. "One organization I worked with did a 'trick-or-treat street' with different floors/areas of their office decorated in a different Halloween-related theme, such as the wild west, space, and Jurassic Park/dinosaurs," DeFee said.
8. Offer Halloween-related food options. Food choices could involve potluck-style where employees bring in their own dishes, or the organization could provide breakfast or lunch that includes holiday-themed fare such as pumpkin muffins and apple cider.
9. Have fun, and be responsible and respectful. The goal of celebrating Halloween in the office isn't to scare or trick people, but to treat them to some Halloween-themed camaraderie that enhances the employee experience. Keep the atmosphere of fun at the forefront.
10. Release 'em early. Make sure you end Halloween-related office activities early in the afternoon to give your people enough time to get home for trick-or-treating.
Joseph Romsey is a freelance writer who does his trick-or-treating from Boston.