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Halloween In The Workplace Is A Treat, But Can Be Tricky

October 28, 2015

By Michael G. McClory

Question: How do you know Halloween is just around the corner?
Answer: When you see Donald Trump, Harley Quinn and Darth Vader in your conference room. 
It is late October and many people are filled with that Halloween holiday spirit.  Kids dress up as Buzz Lightyear or a Princess and go from door to door asking for tricks or treats.  Halloween, though, is not just for kids; adults join in the fun and this year many will dress up as Wonder Woman (shout out to Bend, Oregon), Mary Poppins (not the Ducks year in Eugene), and many other things.
Halloween in the office can be fun.  It can also be spooky for employers.  The Bullard Edge wants to remind employers about a few of the riskier aspects of Halloween at work.
Religion and Discrimination:
Charlie Brown correctly observed that there are “denominational differences” that apply at Halloween (at the 2:30 mark).  While many view Halloween as a secular holiday, not everyone shares that opinion.  For some people, the manner in which many observe Halloween runs contrary to their personal religious beliefs. 
Employers deciding whether and how to observe Halloween in the workplace need to maintain their awareness of the non-secular aspects of the holiday.  The law related to religious discrimination continues to apply (see here and here and here).  Employers need to be prepared to address both requests for accommodation and/or complaints related to religion (e.g., one employee may complain that another employee is proselytizing).  Moreover, all Halloween celebrations (such as costume contests or parties) ought to be optional, rather than mandatory.    
Dignity and Class:
Believe it or not, sometimes Halloween costumes are tasteless (links intentionally omitted).  The fine line between acceptable and not is simply disregarded in favor of costumes that are, among other things, too risqué, capitalize on infamous actions/actors, and/or employ shocking stereotypes.
Employers need to adopt a costume rule that is along the lines of Don Lockwood’s credo in Singin' in the Rain: dignity, always dignity.  Employers should make it clear that their EEO, non-discrimination, and anti-harassment policies are not suspended for Halloween.  Further, it would be a good idea to let employees know that anyone having a question about whether his/her intended costume runs afoul of workplace rules is free to confer with HR before wearing it (or err on the side of caution).
Workplace Safety:
A costume that is religiously neutral and reeking of dignity is not automatically workplace appropriate.  Employers should emphasize that safety comes first (see this from the National Safety Council).  The nature of the workplace and the duties of a particular position will dictate what is safe or not safe as a custom.
Best wishes for a fun and safe Halloween.

The Bullard Edge