5 Issues to Address with Employees Before Halloween

With Halloween right around the corner, many offices are gearing up their celebrations. Halloween can be a great opportunity for companies to boost culture and increase employee engagement. It’s also a fun opportunity for employees of different levels and departments to mingle.

However, it’s not hard to imagine how some of Halloween’s traditions could turn into an HR nightmare. Offensive costumes, careless behavior or insensitive jokes and pranks can all escalate quickly into potential harassment, discrimination or retaliation issues. However, leaders can reduce such risks by communicating the company’s Halloween guidelines, behavior expectations and policies to employees beforehand. When talking with employees, be sure to address the following five issues:

1. Religion: Halloween started as a Christian holiday known as All Saints Day or All Hallows. This Catholic holiday celebrates souls passing to heaven. Some employees may view Halloween as a religious holiday, and wish to have the day off to observe. Companies should plan their response to such requests and update their policies accordingly. The holiday’s tendency to use death as entertainment can also lead to employees not partaking in planned festivities.

2. Halloween dress code: Most adults know what constitutes an appropriate workplace costume and what does not. Still, it doesn’t hurt to reinforce key dress code guidelines. Some sample guidelines you may want to include might be: no stereotypical images of people or cultures, no costumes that impact anyone’s safety or ability to complete their work and no toy weapons.

Consider supplementing your regular dress code policy with a specific “Halloween Dress Code” section. Before the holiday, show employees examples of appropriate costumes. If you’re still worried, consider implementing a costume theme like “Disney characters” or “superheroes” in conjunction with the guidelines.

3. Harassment policy: Although the old “trick or treat” tradition seems to embody the spirit of Halloween, it also lends itself to increased workplace risks. Some employees may decide to play pranks, make jokes or send insensitive emails on the pretense that it’s Halloween so it’s okay. Reiterate the company’s “inclusive culture” and “zero tolerance” policy for harassment a few days before Halloween via a quick training session or an email from the CEO or president. Doing this will remind employees the holiday is not an excuse for bad behavior.

4. Party behavior: Be mindful of hosting a party offsite. When employees are wearing costumes at an offsite venue like a bar or restaurant, it is very easy for them to forget they’re still at work. Some employees may even engage in questionable behavior, whether in the form of sexual innuendos, fighting or acting in a culturally insensitive way. If you decide to host the party offsite, remind employees they are still expected to act appropriately and represent the company well.

On another note, if you decide to allow employees to include their children in the workplace festivities, evaluate safety measures in place for children in the workplace. Do you need to update any of your safety policies?

5. Participation is voluntary: Lastly, make it clear employee participation in all of the festivities is completely voluntary. This provides those employees who do not agree with the holiday or would rather celebrate differently to opt out of the celebration without feeling uncomfortable. However, remember if you decide to compensate employees for their time at the workplace celebrations, you will want to make sure those employees who opt-out for religious or other reasons are also compensated.

Discussing these five issues with employees early will help prevent behavior that might lend itself to harassment or discrimination problems. It will also set a positive tone for the festivities. Consider involving employees in planning the office Halloween celebrations. This can be a great way to promote employee engagement and the right attitudes and behaviors during the holiday.

This article orginally appeared in Talent Management's sister publication, Chief Learning Officer.