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Halloween Celebrations Can Lead to Scary Situations
 

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR  10/17/2012
 
Forget about witches, ghosts and vampires. Some of the scariest things HR professionals might face on Halloween are inappropriate costumes, safety issues and an overabundance of sweets.

Potential pitfalls are largely preventable, experts say. In deciding how—and whether—to celebrate Halloween at work, employers should consider the organization’s culture and its approach to diversity, as well as office traditions and customer impact.

Halloween is largely a secular holiday, but it does have religious roots and pagan symbols, said Jonathan Segal, a partner with Duane Morris LLP in Philadelphia. As such, some people might not wish to participate in company-sponsored Halloween events. Organizations can set the right tone when inviting employees to participate in a Halloween-related event at work by saying things such as:

  • In our workplace, Halloween is intended as a secular celebration.
  • We recognize that not everyone celebrates Halloween. You should not feel compelled to participate.
  • Please do not wear anything that is inconsistent with our equal employment opportunity or diversity policy.

Halloween Costume Do’s and Don’ts

Segal told SHRM Online he doesn’t object to organizations allowing costumes in the workplace; however, employees should use good judgment when deciding what to wear. “Ask yourself: ‘Am I likely to offend someone with this costume?’ ” he suggested. If there’s any doubt, choose another costume.

“Halloween has become a celebration with more opportunity to cross the line,” said Richard Johnson, SPHR. “It requires more regulation and oversight, as costumes can breach good taste or be offensive to those in a culturally diverse company.”

“Images of ghosts, skeletons, devils, etc., do not go over well in a health care setting,” Johnson noted. “I’ve had complaints from those with a strong religious orientation,” he said.

“The year an employee came dressed head-to-toe as Pinhead from [the movie] ‘Hellraiser’ ended the fun for me, said Andrea Ballard, SPHR. “I got a ton of complaints that year and, personally, I was scared,” she said.

Other costumes to avoid: those that violate dress codes or that might otherwise be perceived as offensive, such as costumes of religious leaders.

“Religion and politics are two easy ways to get you in trouble at the workplace,” noted a February 2012 blog posting on HalloweenCostumes.com. Wearing a pope, nun, Jesus or Moses costume is not a good idea for the workplace, the blog noted.

Political costumes can be especially problematic in the midst of a contentious U.S. presidential election, Segal agreed, particularly when Halloween falls between the political debates and Election Day. It might help to remind employees that they still need to be able to work together when the election is over, he added.

Though the employees at HalloweenCostumes.com are encouraged to wear fun accessories year-round, the company is very clear about what kinds of costumes are appropriate—and inappropriate—for the workplace, according to Aleksandra Sobic, who works in public relations for the company.

“Even though we sell super-sexy costumes—some that border on lingerie—we still have a dress code that would make donning these styles at the office come October 31st inappropriate,” Sobic told SHRM Online.

Vericom Corp. in Roswell, Ga., allows employees to wear costumes and decorate their workspace for Halloween, according to Marya Calhoun, director, human asset management and development. “We distribute awards for best, funniest and most creative costumes,” she said. “For office decorations, we award for best decorated work area, scariest work area and most festive work area.” Employees vote to determine winners.

Calhoun noted that everyone is asked to follow a few simple rules:

  • Decorations should not violate fire or safety codes.
  • Employees are responsible for clean-up after the event.
  • Costumes should be office appropriate and not offensive to co-workers and peers. When in doubt ... don’t!

Another consideration, according to Segal, is whether to allow employees with direct customer contact to wear costumes. Some companies may allow it to demonstrate that the company is a great place to work, while others may decline. “Think about what message you want to send,” he advised.

Halloween Party Payoffs

FreeCause, a technology and marketing firm in Boston, celebrates Halloween with a costume contest as well as a lunchtime or after-work party, according to Tom Guenette, director of marketing and public relations. “We think it’s important to celebrate,” he told SHRM Online, because:

  • It’s all-inclusive. Anyone can participate, but there’s no pressure to participate.
  • It’s a nice break from the day. “We work really hard here, so being able to take an hour break for a costume contest and lunch brought in—or if it’s at the end of the day, drinks—is an appreciated break from the daily grind.”
  • It’s fun. “People really try to out-do each other for creativity,” he said. “Some go with traditional outfits like pirates, cowboys, sports figures, while others try and come up with something relevant to our industry or company.”

Vericom’s Calhoun agreed that Halloween is “an opportunity to create a fun and team-focused environment outside of the normal day-to-day operations.”

“Because we have such a diverse group of people here, Halloween is a holiday that everyone can celebrate together, making it an important one for employee engagement and morale,” said Erich Wuhrman, vice president of human resources for Trupanion, a pet insurance company. “As a pet-friendly workplace, everyone enjoys getting their pets involved,” he told SHRM Online. “The main activity is the costume contest and parade, where everyone who comes in costume walks the office halls with their pets.”

“It’s not a big expense for the company, and pays back dividends on employee engagement,” Wuhrman added. “While we don’t require everyone to take part in the festivities, we encourage everyone to be involved. Even those who choose not to be involved love to watch the parade … it gets people talking and laughing cross-departmentally.”

Safety First

Experts say employers must consider possible workplace risks.

For example, there are some places where costumes are not appropriate. “If a costume doesn’t meet manufacturing floor safety guidelines it shouldn’t be worn,” Segal said.

“We are keenly aware of the potential safety issues involved with wearing specific costume styles,” said Matt Preston-Wright, HR manager for HalloweenCostumes.com. “Our office includes a large warehouse space which houses heavy machinery, so we follow a strict adherence to the fire and safety codes set forth by our local government and by OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration). This means no open flames, and no flowing clothing near machinery.”

Safety issues exist even in office environments, Segal noted. For example, a pumpkin carving contest could cause cuts and possible workers’ compensation claims.

“I’m okay with costumes within reason,” Segal said. “I think it is a mistake for there to be pumpkin carving.”

Fortunately, there are safe alternatives to candles and carving tools, such as LED lights and pumpkin painting, said Preston-Wright.

Alternative Celebrations

Segal suggested that employers turn Halloween into an opportunity to give back to the community by combining it with some sort of charitable event. For example, employees could be allowed to wear a costume if they make a $5 donation for one of several noncontroversial charities selected by the company, such as those that conduct cancer research or support abused animals. The company could match donations to the charities, allowing it to “take something fun and turn it into something bigger,” he said.

Ballard said her company tried something similar a year after the “Pinhead” costume incident by hosting a “Harvest Festival” to raise funds for the local food bank. Clients and employees’ family members were invited and children dressed in costumes, but the adults did not. It was “much more fun, a great family event, and a nice way to help the community,” she said.

Some employees might resist such changes, however.

One HR generalist from Houston said she faced considerable resistance when she tried to align her company’s Halloween party with its new wellness initiative. “I asked the [party] committee to please provide healthier options for the food/treats and they became outraged that they would not be provided with fatty candy and pizza,” she noted. “Then they wonder why our insurance rates are so high and complain about paying higher premiums.”

Preston-Wright acknowledged that candy is an expected part of many Halloween celebrations. At HalloweenCostumes.com, “seasonal treats” are available year-round for the 100 full-time and more than a thousand seasonal employees; however, they make efforts to “encourage healthy Halloween snacking,” he said. “Oranges can easily be decorated to resemble jack-o-lanterns, and banana halves can be accessorized with chocolate covered raisins to become ghosts.”

Rachel Taber, PHR, a labor relations specialist, said her company holds an annual wellness event for Halloween that includes families. “We do a plant tour, give educational literature on wellness and the holidays that are coming” she wrote in a SHRM Connect bulletin board posting. “It works out pretty well and we give prizes for the best costume to kids only,” she explained.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Articles:

Don’t Let Holiday Parties Lead to New Year Lawsuits, SHRM Legal Issues, December 2011

Don’t Be Spooked by Holiday Parties, HR News, October 2010

Allowing Halloween Costumes at Work Can Be Tricky, HR News, October 2009

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