Trick or Treat? Inappropriate Halloween Costumes are HR’s Worst Nightmare

Trick or Treat? Inappropriate Halloween Costumes are HR’s Worst Nightmare

When it comes to scaring HR professionals on Halloween, ghosts and goblins have nothing on inappropriate costumes in the workplace. Many organizations celebrate Halloween by allowing employees to dress up and by hosting parties; in fact, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), more than one in three employees celebrate Halloween with co-workers, and more than one in four dress in costume.

But the festive atmosphere of this secular holiday can lead some to push the envelope too far. When it comes to costumes, what one person considers humorous, another may view as offensive. Every HR department has their fair share of horror stories about employees who have worn risqué or offensive costumes to work. And these aren’t just awkward situations—they can lead to legal ramifications for discrimination and harassment. So how can you prevent an HR scare this Halloween?

Put a Halloween costume policy in place

According to Marya Calhoun, director of human asset management and development at Vericom Corp., a well-communicated party and costume policy is the safest route.

Her advice? "Develop guidelines for office-appropriate costumes. Remember to be as clear as possible. Giving guidelines helps everyone to understand what's acceptable and appropriate."

How clear do you have to be? Experts say that policies should go beyond the standard "Use good taste and judgment," because each individual can interpret that very differently. It’s best to provide examples of costumes that may be considered offensive. Examples could include costumes that exaggerate body parts, those that reveal too much of the body, men and women dressed as the opposite gender, or ethnic, religious or race-based costumes.

Additionally, SHRM offers the following advice to companies that want to create policies for Halloween costumes and parties:

* Clearly communicate costume guidelines in advance.
* Caution employees of hospitals or other health care organizations that images of ghosts, graves, skeletons and blood don't go over well in health care settings.
* Request that workers avoid donning political costumes that could be offensive.
* Make sure desk and other office decorations don't violate fire or safety codes. If some find them offensive, consider keeping them confined to a small part of the office.
* Consider whether costumes might seem unprofessional on employees who interact with customers.
* Remember that, in some industries, such as manufacturing, costumes can jeopardize safety.

Be mindful of religious beliefs

In addition to inappropriate costumes, Halloween can cause other issues in the workplace. Some employees may take offense at the very celebration of Halloween. For example, Steve Miller, a labor and employment attorney at Chicago-based Fisher & Phillips, once defended a company against an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claim filed by a Christian worker who said the office Halloween party offended her religious beliefs because it celebrated evil. The EEOC dismissed the claim because the company told the worker she didn't have to attend the party and offered to give her a paid day off instead.

Given that some workers may be offended by Halloween celebrations, consider offering to let them work from home or take the day off.

With a Halloween costume policy in place and religious considerations taken into account, your organization should be able to enjoy the fun of Halloween without worrying about scaring the HR department. For more on HR best practices, check out our Ask HR series of advice from real-world HR professionals, and consider subscribing to the HR Support Center for HR guides and sample policies.

Source: Society for Human Resource Management

This content is intended for educational purposes and should not be considered legal advice.

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