How to Address Halloween Costume Etiquette in the Workplace


Johnny C. Taylor Jr.

Johnny C. Taylor Jr. tackles your HR questions in a series for USA TODAY. Taylor is President and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest professional human resource society and author of “Reset: A Leader’s Guide to Work in an Age of Upheaval.”

Questions are submitted by readers and Taylor’s answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Have a question? Do you have an HR or professional question that you would like me to answer? Submit it here.

Some of our workers have asked if they can come to work in costume on Halloween. What should we consider if we decide to allow it? -James

Answer: When done right, celebrating holidays in the workplace can be uplifting and positive. However, without proper guidelines and communication, Halloween can quickly turn into a nightmare. Costumes can cross the line by being overtly sexual, poking fun at personal beliefs, or playing on inappropriate stereotypes. There are a few steps you can take to reduce the risk of spoiling what should otherwise be a fun day.

Set aside time to talk with your people managers to make sure everyone is on the same page. Highlight how Halloween’s roots in pagan and Christian beliefs can trigger claims of religious discrimination. Managers need to be sensitive to employees who might be offended by anything perceived as wrong. Managers should also offer some scheduling flexibility here for days off or working remotely during the day, if possible. Introduce all parties, department decorations or costume contests as volunteers and offer equal support to those who do not participate and those who do.

Although costumes may require your company to relax its dress code, the main principles should still apply. Asking employees to be covered from “shoulder to knee” should go a long way in avoiding a costume faux pas. Emphasize that clothing should not represent, denigrate or ridicule a protected group. Provide examples – both positive and negative – to illustrate your point.

Unfortunately, some employees may still miss the mark and show up in a suit that crosses the line. It may be helpful to require or recommend that participants bring a change of clothes. You might even want to keep thrift store zip-up or button-up tops handy, just in case.

I will add this: know your workers. It can be the right choice for your company if your managers know their employees well and trust their discretion. Conversely, it may not be a good idea if managers are uncertain or concerned about their teams’ ability to follow guidelines. Be sure to weigh the risk and the reward in order to make the best decision for your organization.

Bad work habits:How do you deal with an employee who is regularly late or absent? Ask HR

Policy:How can I keep political and social discussions civil in the workplace? Ask HR

I am employed and looking for a new job. Is it appropriate or advisable to tell my boss that I’m looking for a job? Should I share details about my dissatisfaction with my current role? Is it better to wait to have an offer in hand? – Grandpa

It is common for people to leave their jobs when there is no perceived opportunity for growth. But the answer to your question depends on the culture of your workplace and the relationship with your people manager.

Generally, employees look for another job without the knowledge of their current employer, but this approach does not apply to everyone.

I’m going to ask the following question: have you spoken with your people manager about opportunities for growth within the organization? Have you actively sought them out? Many companies offer professional development opportunities through training, mentoring or even online courses.

If you’ve already had discussions with your boss about your intention to take on additional responsibilities and grow within the organization, telling them about your job search may not come as a surprise. Your boss can support your efforts and could even serve as a reference.

Alternatively, if you haven’t contacted your supervisor, I recommend having a frank but respectful conversation before you act. Be specific with your boss about your desire to take on more projects or “expanded assignments” that will present more learning opportunities and engage you in different parts of the organization.

Job growth does not always mean promotion. It can also mean learning new skills, collaborating with new departments, or making a career change via a lateral move to broaden your experience.

I also encourage you to review your company’s protocols and employment contracts related to resignations and provide specific notice. Have your colleagues ever shared that they are looking for a job? If so, how were they treated? Determine if sharing this information in advance could jeopardize your current or pending employment.

It’s not an easy decision. Ultimately, you need to consider yourself, your company culture, and your relationship with your people manager to make the decision that’s right for you.

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