halloween at work blunders her magazine

While many companies and employees view Halloween as a festive and harmless occasion, it can also result in etiquette blunders and even legal problems.

According to Philippe Weiss, managing director of Seyfarth Shaw At Work, a legal compliance company, there are at least three major categories of legal problems that companies should be aware of if they celebrate Halloween.

“Specifically, workplace Halloween events and traditions have led to (1) Costume and Conduct Calamities, (2) Creeped-Out Customers, and (3) Complaints of Discrimination.” And he tells HER Magazine, “Any and all of these categories can create a combination of legal, reputational and business risks.”

Costume and Conduct Calamities

Weiss says this category includes ill-advised costumes – as well as the reactions of colleagues and customers – as a potential source of legal problems. “Overly revealing and religiously or culturally-tinged outfits are consistently the most problematic, as they potentially cause immediate offense.”

And, he says that these costume choices can often lead others to make inappropriate comments.

“Courts have focused on inappropriate verbal, virtual and visual expressions as areas where employers must monitor and enforce standards, and dress and dress code violations fall clearly in the ‘visual expression’ category.

When companies have overly lax dress and conduct codes for Halloween, Weiss says harassment lawsuits can follow. “Once employers loosen rules on respectful, appropriate dress (even just for Halloween) they send an unspoken message to employees that respectful, appropriate conduct standards may also be less stringently enforced.” But, he warns that no company embroiled in a misconduct lawsuit has ever been given a Halloween pass or a Halloween waiver.

Creeped-Out Customers

Sometimes, companies try too hard to show their Halloween spirit, and when their promotions and events misfire, legal problems can be the result. “Companies regularly aim to create an October splash that attracts the public via ghoulish displays and ghastly special events,” Weiss says. “However, they rarely predict any of the unintended consequences, such as scaring away customers (including those with small children) and, even worse, actually placing customers in danger.”

It’s easy to understand how kids could be frightened, but how on earth are companies putting customers in danger? Weiss explains, “An apt example of this would be a company-sponsored haunted house or maze built and designed without proper planning and/or construction, which results in injuries.”

Complaints of Discrimination

In addition, Weiss warns that Halloween festivities can lead to charges of discrimination. “A company’s response to Halloween-related religious sensitivities, concerns, and practices is definitely a source of legal problems.”  For example, he says that managers may disregard an employee’s religious concerns regarding Halloween. “They may consider it silly, frivolous or fake, but this type of reaction can result in potentially failing to accommodate those with sincere beliefs regarding certain traditions on October 31, or those who object to participating in company-wide Halloween activities.”

Whether employers agree with these beliefs or not, Weiss says the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) mandates that employees make the appropriate accommodations. 

Advice for Celebrating Halloween at Work

Even when actions don’t lead to lawsuits, they can cause negative reactions, unnecessary conflicts, and lost business. Sharon Schweitzer, JD, a cross-cultural protocol and business etiquette expert and consultant, provides the following tips for HER Magazine readers.

Research the Culture, Rules and Expectations

“If your company is going to have a small Halloween party or allow employees to dress up for the occasion, research the culture, rules and expectations ahead of time,” Schweitzer advises. She recommends asking a mentor or coach to weigh in on the company’s written and unwritten rules. “This can be extremely helpful as you will steer clear of potentially offensive and inappropriate costumes.”

Selecting a Costume

Each year, there are stories in the news about people who chose to wear inappropriate Halloween costumes.

For example:

  • Julianne Hough wore black face to emulate Crazy Eyes from Orange is the New Black
  • Dwayne Wade wore white face to emulate Justin Beiber
  • Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag gathered a wagon full of baby dolls and pretended to be Jon and Kate Plus Eight
  • Prince Harry donned a Nazi outfit
  • Tia Mowry dressed as a geisha
  • Octomom dressed as a nun, while her children were dressed as devils
  • Snooki dressed as a missing child on a milk carton
  • Chris Brown dressed as a member of the Taliban

“Choosing a costume that represents another culture, race or ethnicity can be very difficult to pull off because in most cases, it can be offensive, inaccurate, and outright ridiculous,” Schweitzer warns. She also advises against choosing a controversial individual, since it could lead to unwanted comments and conversations.

“What not to wear includes: inappropriate costumes depicting cultural, transgender, pink-slip, black-face, dark-face, ethnic, national origin, racial, religion, mock the human body, overly-revealing costumes,” Schweitzer says. “Other bad choices include Hugh Hefner, playboy bunnies, parodying a co-worker, or using imitation accessories such as weapons, guns, swords, or knives.”

Weiss points out that companies can’t go wrong by sticking with the dress code. However, for companies that allow employees to wear costumes, it must be stressed that they can be creative but not offensive.

“Dress to impress, not to distress,” he says. “It would also be a good idea to deputize a team of managers – or, better yet, HR professionals – who are carefully trained to properly respond to crass and questionable costumes and related employee conversations that may cross a line.”

Here’s another tip: “Don’t forget that sharing pics of last night’s sexy devil or warlock Halloween costume can potentially be as offensive as actually wearing the outfit to work,” Weiss warns.  “And be especially careful not to share risqué photos on social media or on your company’s email system, as you will have lost control over who can see them – and that may include internal HR.”

Be A Welcoming Colleague

Some people celebrate Halloween, and some people don’t. Schweitzer says it’s important to respect the decisions of those who participate as well as those who choose not to participate.   

“I probably shouldn’t say this but . . .”

That’s a warning that you should follow your instincts. “Avoid saying phrases such as the above because it can get ugly really fast,” Schweitzer says. “Don’t try to defend yourself by declaring what you’re not and then asking a question that may be contradictory to the preceding statement.”  If someone says or does (or wears) something that you find puzzling, she recommends asking a trusted colleague.

It’s also possible to offend without saying a word, so Schweitzer also advises against exhibiting negative body language.

“Remember that we all come from varying cultural, racial, and ethnic backgrounds,” she concludes. “It’s important to avoid stereotyping groups and to open up the workspace as a welcoming and safe environment for all.”



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