Halloween and the Workplace

Author: Beth P. Zoller, XpertHR Legal Editor

As the leaves change color and the days become shorter, Halloween presents a great opportunity to introduce some fun into the workplace and increase employee morale, motivation and engagement. However, it is important to prepare and communicate clear guidelines to supervisors and employees regarding appropriate conduct and behavior to minimize the risk of liability. Here are some issues to consider:

1. Set Guidelines on Costumes

Be sure to create firm rules before allowing employees to dress up in costume. The rules should depend on the employer's workplace culture and industry, as well as customers and clients. All costumes should be workplace-appropriate and avoid portraying any stereotype of a religion, race, gender or national origin in an offensive manner, as this may lead to a hostile work environment harassment claim. Similarly, politically divisive costumes should be avoided. Further, an employer should advise all employees to avoid dressing provocatively or in a revealing manner, as this may lead to an unwanted sexual harassment claim. Overly violent or gory costumes as well as fake weapons, knives or guns should also be banned. It is also important for the employer to convey that all costumes should be safe and not pose a threat to employee health and safety. An employer should strive to make safety a priority and minimize the risk of any injury, as an employer may be faced with compensable injuries and workers' compensation claims. Certain costumes may present a safety hazard, particularly for employees working in manufacturing, with chemicals and flammable liquids or with heavy or dangerous equipment.

2. Carefully Plan Any Workplace Celebrations

Halloween can be good way for employees to socialize in a more laid-back atmosphere and encourage camaraderie, but it is important to carefully plan such celebrations. An employer should aim to keep the atmosphere lighthearted and monitor employee conduct. Additionally, consumption of any alcohol should be carefully monitored to ensure safe driving and minimize the potential for employer liability for subsequent drunk driving or harassment claims. An employer should advise employees to act professionally, exercise good judgment and treat all co-workers with respect. There should be a clearly designated starting time and ending time for the party so that employees are able to be productive and do their work. Additionally, an employer should not make participation mandatory or conduct any work-related business at the celebration, as some employees may not want to participate for religious reasons or because they believe celebrating Halloween in the workplace is inappropriate. Further, in providing any food or treats, an employer should be aware of allergies to nuts and other foods as well as any dietary restrictions. Halloween pranks that are harassing, obscene or threatening should be banned.

3. Provide Firm Rules Regarding Office Decorations

While employees may want to decorate their office or workspaces in the festive spirit of Halloween, all decorations should be appropriate, not create a safety hazard and not interfere with the workplace. Employees should avoid overly gory or violent displays as well as gravestones or death-related decorations that may offend co-workers, clients or customers. Further, it is critical for any decorations to be safe and nonflammable and avoid creating a safety hazard or risk by ensuring compliance with all fire and safety codes.

4. Be a Family-Friendly Employer

An employer may want to use Halloween as a time to show that they are a family-friendly employer either by permitting employees to take time off from work or telecommute that day or providing them with early dismissal so they may attend Halloween events at school or go trick or treating during daylight hours. If doing so, an employer should be sure to clearly convey any telecommuting policy or time off policy to employees. Further, an employer may want to be sensitive about scheduling particularly large and important meetings that day if it can be avoided. Additionally, Halloween also presents the opportunity for an employer to invite the children of employees to visit the workplace in costume.

5. Accommodate Religious Beliefs

In celebrating Halloween, an employer should take employees' religious beliefs into account and provide reasonable accommodations based on religion. Some employees may view Halloween as a religious holiday and seek to take time off to observe. Others may practice a religion that forbids any celebration of Halloween. It is important for an employer to proceed cautiously and make sure to respect and accommodate all religious beliefs when it comes to Halloween.