There are two times a year I can think of that scare the bejesus out of HR people: Halloween and December.
December because there’s a good chance someone — fingers crossed it’s not a boss — will party too hearty and the next thing you know HR is firing someone or hiring a lawyer. Or both.
Halloween is even scarier because it’s just so unpredictable. No one’s going to get high on the candy corn, but I’ll just bet there are a few HR professionals laying awake wondering if some manager is going to dress up as Harvey Weinstein and act the part.
You don’t even have to go that far to be insensitive. Employment attorney Philippe Weiss, Managing Director of Seyfarth Shaw at Work, tells of a CEO who showed up as the Grim Reaper the day after two well-liked employees were axed.
Costumes seem to be the biggest problem, at least that’s the sense you get reading the various posts that a Google search turns up. But Weiss says even well-intentioned efforts at Halloween fun can have unintended consequences. One office temp at a Midwest accountancy broke her nose while participating in her firm’s ill-constructed haunted stockroom maze event, he reports. “She ran headlong into a brick wall, after fleeing from a chainsaw-wielding accountant, disguised as ‘Jason’.”
The simplest preventative would be to quash all Halloween interest with a “no costumes,” “no party” edict. Do that and you’ll remind everyone why they hate HR. No need, though, to give the troops anymore ammunition. Just send out a reminder about proper costume etiquette.
“Costumes at work may produce unexpected reactions, even from those you think you know well,” cautions Weiss. “In today’s political climate, think twice about big-name politicians’ masks, as they also have led to immediate workplace discord.”
Tell the troops, he says, that “costumes can be creative, but in no way crude or disrespectful to others.”
Now, you might think that would be enough said. Alas, you could end up regretfully mistaken. Besides saying what Weiss suggests, pick-up a few of Tim Sackett’s rules from 2014:
- Anything with “naughty” in the title isn’t work appropriate.
- Anything that interferes with your ability to do your actual job shouldn’t be a costume selection.
- If you have to put a sign on to explain what you are, go back to the drawing board.
Here are some other Halloween dos and don’ts Weiss sent us:
- Prep supervisors to be alert: Remind managers and supervisors that they should inform HR of questionable get-ups (or of employees discussing/sharing images from last night’s ribald Halloween affair). Managers sometimes feel that Halloween is an exceptional day, where creativity and camaraderie trump compliance and common sense. However, no court has ever granted or recognized a “Halloween Waiver” to a business facing a resulting misconduct suit.
- Deputize a Halloween Response Team: Consider the right cadre of higher-level managers (or, better yet, HR professionals) who are carefully trained to properly step-in and respond to costumes and related employee interactions that may cross a line.
- Party appropriately: If you are dead set on holding an office Halloween event, keep it respectful, non-religious and completely voluntary. (The voluntary attendance piece can be crucial: Halloween may mean “free candy” to some, but both the date and holiday, itself, have deep religious resonance for others. They may object to any expectation that they will attend a Halloween-themed party.) Also, keep the lights on and resist the urge to illuminate via candles.
- Don’t laugh along when employees “trick” each other: Lawsuits and complaints have resulted from terrified employees running into walls, accidentally stapling themselves, and worse, after co-worker Halloween pranks and “scare tactics” went too far. (Few also realize that “egging” someone may constitute criminal assault.)