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Don’t be haunted by inappropriate Halloween festivities at work

October 22, 2013

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner AdvanceHR

Planning to let your employees have a Halloween celebration of some kind? Even if your organization limits the recognition of Halloween to costumes, be proactive by setting some boundaries in advance. It’s hard to know what will offend some staff members’ sensibilities, result in hard feelings — or even litigation. Continue reading for some tips to keep the Halloween spirits fun, not fiendish.

These days, business managers may try to lighten the mood in the office by organizing recreational or other pleasurable activities for employees to enjoy. With Halloween fast approaching, you might authorize a party based on this theme or encourage employees to wear costumes to work one day. It’s meant to be “all in good fun.”

However, this innocuous attempt might cause legal problems for employers, especially if a costume is considered to be provocative, demonstrate a political or social message or is simply inappropriate for the workplace. It can result in a sexual harassment claim or other allegation by the person wearing the costume or by someone else who is offended by the garb.

For instance, if a female employee turns up in a costume which is skimpy or suggestive in some way this could lead to lewd comments and unwanted physical contact. Other costumes — such as those portraying an illegal alien, homeless person or member of some other group or class — might spawn charges of racial, ethnic, religious or age discrimination. And, in this emotionally charged political climate, a costume based on a well-known political figure may trigger arguments.

Does this mean employers should strictly prohibit employees from wearing Halloween costumes and fire those who do? Not necessarily, but there are several steps you can take to reduce the risk of litigation.

Here are seven tips to consider implementing, which could help your organization avoid a legal pitfall:

  1. Establish clear guidelines. Before the workplace festivities take place, issue a memo on what is expected of employees. The details may depend on the particular culture of the company, but they should be geared towards a reasonable person’s sensitivities. Just because “you’ve always done it that way before” doesn’t make it right or appropriate.
  2. Remind employees the office is still a place of business. In other words, they should act professionally at all times. This is especially important if customers or clients are also present on the business premises. Furthermore, be mindful of any safety concerns and restrict costumes to just clothing, rather than props.
  3. Avoid political rhetoric. Some people might be offended if costumes depict well-known political figures whether positively or negatively. Even a costume or mask which might seem harmless to most people could inflame passions in another, so it’s generally better to skip this area altogether. 
  4. Take a modern view. Some costumes which would not raise any eyebrows in the past could be problematic today. For instance, costumes may be offensive simply because of the racial or cultural stereotypes they suggest. Instruct employees to be respectful of other people’s heritage and religions.
  5. Ask for input about past Halloween activities. You may assume workers weren’t offended in prior years, only to find out certain costumes were widely considered to be insensitive. Take an informal poll and react accordingly.
  6. Outline disciplinary measures. The guidelines should cover behavior which will not be tolerated. Use this opportunity to reinforce company policy and procedures concerning sexual harassment. If any punishments must be handed out, they should be applied on a consistent basis. In the event someone ignores the guidelines and shows up in an inappropriate costume, ask them to change immediately.
  7. Practice what you preach. Workers may look at managers to see how they adhere to the guidelines. Try to set a good example. If you think a particular costume is “borderline,” play it safe and opt for an alternative. Finally, keep a watchful eye on the proceedings.

If you think reasonable guidelines will be difficult to enforce, you might shift to another type of activity like a potluck lunch or allowing only children of employees or customers to trick-or-treat in the workplace. Although you still want to get into the spirit of the Halloween season, a contentious lawsuit could haunt you for a long time to come.

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