For love of Halloween: Costumes & compliance

Clarence Belnavis

The office holiday party is enough to “scare” any HR department. Many a workplace dispute and even the occasional lawsuit can trace their origins back to such an event. Since not everyone does a good job of being professional at office holiday parties, it is important to set clear guidelines in order to avoid legal horror stories.

Most people overlook Halloween when they consider “holidays” that are routinely celebrated in the workplace. “All Hallows’ Eve” is a celebration with some religious connotations as it starts the observance of Allhallowtide – remembering departed saints and believers. The holiday also has Celtic, Welsh and other roots.

However, the Halloween that most of us know from our childhood is the sugar encrusted and caramel covered splendor where people give out free candy to total strangers. What makes the HR department nervous here is the custom of dressing up in costumes. Notwithstanding your wonderful dress code that everyone complies with the rest of the year, Halloween appears to be a license for folks to throw caution to the wind.

The maid or Spartan costumes that look so cute outside the workplace may find their way into the workplace on Halloween and will likely be inappropriate. If you Google adult Halloween costumes for 2015, there is no shortage of scantily clad outfits for women and men. That Wonder Woman or pirate outfit could be offensive, and so could the dreadlocks wig. Costumes that are sexually provocative, carry a political or social message, or are otherwise simply inappropriate for interacting with co-workers and customers, could lead to a liability nightmare for employers.

The proper planning of a Halloween event and monitoring through the workday will help lessen any such risks. To that end, the following are some tips for managers and supervisors for any Halloween celebrations:

  • Decide if costumes are appropriate for the workplace.
  • Clearly communicate costume guidelines in advance.
  • Remind employees they are still at work.
  • Don’t overreact, but be sensitive to the issues.
  • Think about any feedback the company received from employees or customers regarding last year’s Halloween party or employee costumes.
  • Offer alternative celebrations.
  • Be prepared to discipline, if necessary.
  • “Trick or treating” is just horseplay and still inappropriate.

While it may not make you popular with all of your employees, you could also just not allow costumes. For example, you may want everyone who interacts with the public and/or customers to dress in their normal work clothes in order to ensure that those interactions are appropriate. There may also be individuals who work in unique or safety sensitive positions where you want to make sure that they do not have any costume related safety issues. Keep in mind, your employees can still celebrate to their heart’s content before or after work.

For most workplaces, the simple reminder that the dress code and standards of professionalism still apply will likely suffice. But, you may actually want to personally check in on your employees on Halloween. There is often that one employee in everyone’s workplace that regularly struggles to dress appropriately. You know who they are. The odds that they would get it right on Halloween are very low. If there is an issue, checking in on that person or work unit will help to head it off.

If you plan ahead and remind everyone of the rules, you can ensure that Halloween remains the sugar encrusted and caramel covered splendor that we all love.

This Tip of the Week was written by Clarence Belnavis, a partner at the labor and employment law firm, Fisher & Phillips, which is dedicated to representing the interests of employers. He can be reached at 503.242.4262 or