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Will That Halloween Costume Offend Co-Workers?

Oct. 27, 2021, 8:00 AM

Reopened businesses are resurrecting what was a dormant tradition for many last year: Halloween-themed activities for both employees and customers.

Companies are opting for outdoor parties (often with heated tents) to limit Covid-19 concerns. However, other Halloween hazards may still await businesses, based on October calls we are receiving from clients and companies. There are definite workplace risks to this holiday and definite do’s and don’ts to follow.

1. Prevent Costume Crises

Religiously/culturally tinged outfits or those that may be overly revealing or inappropriately themed are increasingly problematic and legally perilous. They have offended others, leading to dozens of responsive training requests each year received by our company. Moreover, those affected may be reluctant to take exception in the midst of a festive, once a year, celebration.

International companies may face unique challenges, given differing expectations, traditions, and experiences of staff. For example: A global client came to us for training after holding a virtual pre-Halloween event this past week (including a “world-wide costume contest”). Two employees from Florida dressed as what they termed “poor little gypsies” which was particularly upsetting to a number of the European-based team members in attendance. The two staff members later explained they were aiming to create a “street urchin” look and were unaware of the offense the term “gypsy” might create.

In today’s fraught political environment, even masks depicting our national leaders (of either party) are inadvisable costume choices, especially if one wishes to remain on good terms with co-workers.

Clients report that it can be enormously beneficial to remind employees of costuming guidance and expectations before the 31st of October.

The first step that employers often take is to revisit their existing organizational dress code. In some cases, this code effectively covers much of the same territory and points that should be emphasized before any themed event, such as a Halloween shindig.

Beyond that, organizations should consider reminding their people that revealing or religiously/culturally charged garb is inappropriate. Further, if people are coming to work in a costume (for examples, prior to the actual themed event), companies should emphasize safety rules, such as the risks of long cloaks or gowns near machinery.

Finally, employees, for their part, should refrain from email sharing pictures of themselves in a questionable get-up with co-workers.

2. Stop Crass Commentary and Misconduct

Costumes—especially those that are more revealing or risqué, are often accompanied by verbal comments/commentary from others, which comments may, themselves, violate company respect and harassment policies.

For example, legal cases have been filed where an employee dressed up as a cat for a theme party and other staff members repeatedly and salaciously commented on her “tail.”

If planning any training in the days or weeks leading up to Halloween, include respect and other standards reminders related to any on and off-premises events. Build a group consensus and buy-in around what costumes are appropriate.

Also, avoid planning any costume-related activities or contests that involve physical contact—such as mummifying co-workers in toilet paper—as doing so can create potential Covid-19, as well as definite physical, conduct risks.

3. Prepare Managers for Risky Policy Moments

Liability impacts can result from anyone of authority mishandling costuming or Halloween conduct complaints. Companies whose managers and human resource/capital professionals are not fully equipped to properly intake and respond to these concerns (and know how to escalate them) could face potentially significant hostile environment or harassment lawsuits.

For example: One furniture company came to us for help after a supervisor responded to a new employee’s complaints that two costumes worn by colleagues were culturally objectionable by saying, ”I think we can all be just a wee bit less sensitive on this one day of the year. If not on Halloween, then when!?”

Of course, no court has ever ruled that a “Halloween Defense” applies to a business facing an action because a manager or supervisor failed to respond effectively to a complaint or concern.

Pre-event manager meetings should provide your leaders with what to say/do when they see or learn about potential costuming or conduct policy violations. Stress that no one of authority should, in any way, be brushing-off or minimizing complaints—be they from staff or anyone else visiting your premises or attending an event.

Running through various realistic scenarios—and providing specific “in the moment scripts” can best ensure that managers will confidently and safely handle these always challenging moments.

4. Treat in-Person and Virtual Staff Equally

As with any activity or project, treating virtual and in-person staff differently in the context of costumes or themed event participation can create accusations of disparate treatment as well as impact morale.

A number of companies that previously hosted only live Halloween parties and costuming contests have called us for input on hosting engaging alternatives or variations.

Any competitions or activities should be pre-vetted to ensure that they translate well and are equally viable as remote events. They should be coordinated so that, for example, virtual and live attendees both ‘show their’ outfits (perhaps alternating back and forth) and that all participants are afforded equal consideration. (And, all appropriate costuming rules should apply to everyone, regardless of location.)

In our current tech environment, numerous virtual Halloween participatory options already exist. For example (partly as a result of Covid-19) virtual haunted houses and virtual escape rooms are both increasingly available and popular options.

5. Avoid Customer Catastrophes

In a parallel area of risk, many sales-focused companies aim to create seasonal buzz with Halloween-themed marketing efforts. Some, however, fail to sufficiently anticipate unintended consequences, such as upsetting customers with small children.

One example: A Midwest-based kids clothing store’s window display with costumed mannequins, including one in an extremely bloody state (and sporting a levitating severed head). The display led to alarmed calls from long-time customers who refused to return until the mannequin was completely covered or removed.

A number of our small retail clients have had great results briefly “test sharing“ planned marketing messages, images, and display ideas with a few trusted customers, to avoid later scaring away businesses.

A final tip: All Halloween events and activities, of course, should be fully voluntary for employees.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Philippe Weiss is an attorney and president of workplace consultancy Seyfarth at Work. He has represented plaintiff and defense-side clients and develops practical, dynamic compliance communication methodologies for Seyfarth at Work’s consulting and training solutions.