Many workplaces and schools engage in Halloween celebrations, and with good reason.  LCW is no exception:

However, Halloween parties can be scary for risk managers, as they carry the potential to put a few skeletons in an employer’s closet.  Here are some tricks to keep your Halloween party from raising the specter of liability:

  • Employees Should Know They are Free to “Ghost”.  Participation in any Halloween festivities should be entirely optional.  Employees may not feel comfortable celebrating Halloween; for some employees, it may be prohibited by their religious beliefs.  Nobody should be required to take part, and an employer should not tolerate teasing or ostracism of an employee who opts out.  It’s only fun if everyone’s having fun.
  • When Choosing Costumes, Don’t Let the Zombies Eat Your Brain.  Dracula, Frankenstein, Mickey Mouse, Elsa and/or Anna, a cowboy, an M & M, a puppy, any of the three PJ Masks. . . there are nearly unlimited options for inoffensive Halloween costumes.  And yet, every year, some ghouls make the news by wearing costumes that would give any employer nightmares.  Human Resources professionals can reduce this risk by providing common-sense guidance as to what is an appropriate costume for a Halloween celebration at the office:
    • An attempt to “wear” or parody another culture, religion, race, or identity is not a costume; it’s an exhibit in someone else’s lawsuit for harassment or discrimination.  It should go without saying that blackface or brownface is unacceptable.  The same is true of traditional cultural dress.  A good costume does not make one’s colleagues feel caricatured, mocked, or belittled for their protected characteristics.  On the other hand, an employee should not be prohibited from wearing expressions of his or her own identity.  Context matters.
    • At some point, Halloween shifted from being an opportunity for kids to get free candy to an opportunity for adults to free themselves of their inhibitions.  Inhibitions can be a good thing at work.  A Halloween costume should not expose any part of an employee’s body that ordinary work clothes would not.  If a costume is described by the seller as “sexy” or some euphemism therefor, it is probably better saved for a non-work outing.  Bottom line: the provisions of the employer’s dress code related to appropriate attire still apply.
  • No Creepy Behavior.   Despite HR’s best efforts, some employees may wear provocative costumes to the office.  This does not give other employees license to make comments or engage in conduct that would otherwise violate the employer’s harassment or other conduct policies.  If the behavior is beyond the pale, Halloween does not provide a get-out-of-Hades-free card.
  • Stay Safe Out There. If your employees work with equipment that may impact their health or safety, extra care should be taken to ensure that costumes do not imperil employees.  Some Halloween revelers like to accessorize costumes with fake weapons; realistic-looking toys could cause legitimate fear; these should not be allowed.

If an employer utilizes these few simple tricks, the office Halloween party should be a treat, and the only stomachache a risk manager should suffer is from raiding the candy bowl.