It’s That Time Again: Halloween Costumes at Work

There’s a cool breeze in the air, stores are devoting whole aisles to candy and carved pumpkins are appearing on your neighbor’s front porch. The signs of Halloween are all here – including employees wanting to wear costumes to work.

And that’s where the problems start. Many offices allow employees to dress up, but do your employees know which Halloween costumes are work appropriate and which ones aren’t?

This blog will help by going over some important do’s and don’ts to ensure everyone in your office is included and having fun. Most of these are probably obvious, but it never hurts to have a reminder!

And if you need more than a reminder, check out our harassment and discrimination prevention training.

Workplace Halloween Costume Mistakes

Keep it Agnostic

Avoid all religious-themed costumes. Even though this is probably the most obvious one on the list, somehow there’s always one person that forgets. And when they do, bad things might happen.

For example, if one employee dresses up as Muhammad, other employees might make inappropriate comments that could create a hostile work environment.

And since religion is a protected class under Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws, your company might face legal action for unlawful harassment.

Avoid the “Sexy” Costumes

Many women’s costumes are sexy-something: sexy cat, sexy police officer, sexy nurse, etc. But anything with sexy is a bad choice.

Vault, a company providing career and job information, advises, “Wearing provocative outfits could make co-workers feel uncomfortable or lead to unwanted sexual advances, potentially resulting in legal actions-something that no employer wants to deal with.”1

And covering up applies to men as well. Male nudity might be funny as a gag in a movie or television show, but when it’s at the office, it’s definitely no laughing matter; in fact, it might even be perceived as harassment.

For example, PropertyCasualty360, an insurance news aggregator, relates the story of a male manager at a home improvement store harassing a female employee. In response to her doctor costume, the male manager unbuckled his pants, motioned to his groin, and said, “Here, Doctor. It hurts here.” That “joke” cost him $50,000 and attorney fees.2

Don’t Wear Costumes Depicting Other Races or Ethnicities

Employees might want to dress up as their favorite athlete or singer, and that’s a great idea. But when they change their facial features or paint their face, it quickly goes from a fun homage to offensive. Tension, offenses and hurt feelings can arise no matter the intention when choosing a costume. This applies to cultural appropriation as well. Don’t dress up as a Native American princess, a Mexican with a sombrero, or a Japanese Geisha.

It’s best to just stay away from harmful stereotypes and symbols of oppression – especially the ones related to race or ethnicity.

Don’t Single Anyone Out For Not Dressing Up

For whatever reason, a religious belief or social anxiety, some employees might not want to dress up. And that’s perfectly acceptable. Other employees should respect their wishes and not make them feel like outsiders.

Do This to Encourage a Work Appropriate Halloween Celebration

The list of things not to do is pretty long, which is why many workplaces don’t let employees dress up and celebrate Halloween. But embracing Halloween at the office has many positive benefits for employees. According to HR Magazine, office Halloween activities ” can help reduce stress, build teams and shape a positive company culture.”3

So here are some do’s that will help ensure your employees are making the right costume choices and ensure everyone is included in the fun.

Do Encourage Creative Costumes

A DIY pumpkin or fall-themed costume is a great idea. Or maybe a fun pun translated into a costume. By giving your employees a guideline of what’s appropriate and what’s not, they can embrace their creative side and come up with something really good.

Do Plan for a Theme in Advance

If you can set something in place beforehand, then you’ll have more control over employee’s costumes. For example, you can pick a kid-friendly movie or set an animal theme, and the whole office has to follow it if they are dressing up.

This will get people involved in the process; you can even let employees vote on the theme. And hopefully, it will reduce the chances that someone will wear an offensive costume.

Do Provide Other Options to Get in on the Fun

For employees that aren’t dressing up, make sure you have other options. Maybe a pot luck or have everyone decorate their workspace. Just make sure you’ve thought of a way to include everyone in your office in the Halloween fun.

The most important thing to remember about Halloween costumes at work is to ensure your employees are not doing anything that would violate EEO laws. Because if they do, employers might be liable for any resulting problems.

But you can help ensure your employees are up-to-speed on discrimination and harassment laws, by getting them properly trained.


1Vault- Wearing the Wrong Halloween Costume to Work Could be a Bad Career Move

2PropertyCasualty360- Slideshow: Bizarre Halloween Lawsuits

3HR Magazine- Halloween Parties: A Tricky Treat