Best Practices for Employers Hosting Halloween Office Parties
Now that autumn is finally here, the smell of football tailgates, crisp leaves and pumpkin spice lattes fill the air. One cannot enter a corner store without encountering pumpkins, bags of candy corn and black cat and witch trinkets – Halloween is just weeks way!
According to the National Retail Federation (“NRF”), more than 157 million Americans will celebrate Halloween this year. The NRF reports that last year Americans spent $7 billion on Halloween celebrations (costumes, decorations, candy, etc.). For kids, the whole concept of Halloween simmers down to two issues: (i) what costume(s) are you going to wear; and (ii) what neighborhoods give out the “best” candy? However, employers have very different concerns when deciding whether they should host a Halloween party in the workplace: (i) should the company sponsor an event in the workplace; and (ii) how can it best minimize risks associated with said party.
Most Halloween scholars agree that there are 7 categories of costumes:
- Generics (witch, vampire, princess, ninja, referee, pirate, nurse, accountant, etc.);
- Sultry or Form Fitting Disguises (i.e., adding “sexy” to any of the above costumes);
- Thrown Together Five-Minutes Ago (i.e., from the back of the car or supply closet);
- Costumes that are sexually, racially or otherwise offensive;
- In-Joke (i.e., group of friends going as an abstract concept or pop culture reference – think “Where’s Waldo,” Smurfs, or Minions);
- Grown-up (i.e., what you might wear any other day, but with a holiday-themed sweater); and,
- Costumes that could create a hazard or cause physical harm.
Prior to hosting a workplace Halloween party, Employers should issue party guidelines identifying several examples of costumes that are inappropriate in the workplace either on account of the polarizing effect the costume might have on co-workers (see categories # 2 and 4) or due to potential safety hazards associated with the costume (see category #7). Additionally, employers may want to limit its employees’ usage of “props” and other accessories that might tend to frighten or intimidate co-workers (i.e., play guns, knives, plastic toys that resemble explosive devices, etc.). In sum, employers hosting Halloween parties or even permitting employees to wear costumes on October 31st should implement policies that minimize potential problems arising from claims of racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination and/or sexual harassment.
ACCOMMODATIONS FOR RELIGIOUS BELIEFS
Halloween is said to have originated from an ancient Celtic festival where it was believed that those who died in the preceding year were said to come back, seeking bodies to possess. To combat the spirits, the Celts would dress as ghouls in an attempt to frighten the spirits away. When Christianity spread over those regions, November 1 was designated as All Saints Day (or All Hallow’s Day) and the Celtic festival was celebrated the night before (i.e., “All Hallows Eve” and later “Halloween”).
Given the origins of the holiday, some religions take issue with Halloween, categorizing it as akin to paganism, celebrating death and the occult. Employers are reminded that the law requires that they remain sensitive towards its employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs. If attendance at the workplace Halloween party is mandatory for all employees, employers should inform employees that accommodations will be made for employees who cannot participate due to a conflicting religious belief. If an employee notifies a supervisor or the HR Department that they are unable to attend the event due to sincerely held religious beliefs, the employer has an obligation to accommodate that employee’s request.
Prior to hosting a Halloween party, employers would be remiss if they didn’t remind their employees of the company’s sexual harassment and dress code policies, so as to reiterate that the party is still a work-related function and that employees should act accordingly. Employers should also remind their employees that while a particular costume might be completely appropriate for a ”night on the town,” that same outfit might be entirely inappropriate and borderline offensive for the workplace (see categories # 2 and 4). In sum, employers must make clear that being allowed to wear a silly costume one day a year is not a “get-out-of-jail-free” card for unprofessional behavior in the workplace (i.e., wearing provocative costumes or making unwanted comments, gestures or advancements towards co-workers).
Halloween has become a hotbed for racial insensitivity over the past several years – accordingly, employers should prohibit these types of costumes from the workplace. There have been any number of cases that have been litigated throughout the United States where employees have performed skits at holiday parties in costumes that purport to portray members of another race. No employee should ever be made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome at their place of work, and workplace party policies, especially at Halloween. Employers must be mindful of this and the litigation that may ensue for failing to observe this policy.
Many employers find that allowing employees to dress up for Halloween can serve as a morale booster between the end-of-the-summer blues and ramp up for the December holiday season. While boosting morale for the team is certainly important, employers need to carefully consider whether hosting a Halloween party in the workplace and allowing employees to dress up is the right decision for their company.
If an employer does host a Halloween party, it should adopt the following straightforward and obvious guidelines prohibiting costumes that are: (i) sexually suggestive; (ii) offensive based on age, sex or sexual orientation, religion, national origin, race or other protected group. Moreover, if an employee presents themselves to work in an inappropriate costume, the employer should address the situation immediately and attempt to find a solution to bring the employee into compliance with the employer’s guidelines (i.e., ask them to change into something more appropriate or go home to change, or, if necessary, consider disciplinary action).
As always, HRLegalist urges our readers to consult legal counsel if you have any questions about Halloween and other holiday party policies for the workplace, and, of course, have a Happy Halloween!