Underdressed or Under Duress? Keep Your Halloween Costume Safe for Work

By CHERY SABOL for the Missoula Job Service

Can you imagine how scary Halloween is for human resource directors? On one hand, some experts say that a day of silliness with costumes and treats can be a great bonding experience for employees. On the other hand, there is that whole darker dimension of hurt feelings, offended customers, compromised reputations, even lawsuits.

Plenty of businesses encourage employees to dress up for Halloween. It can be a morale-building, team-gelling, communication-improving, motivation-growing, all-around business-boosting experience. “Your people have a little fun in the office, which builds morale. Groups of employees work together on fun projects, which helps build teamwork,” encourages senior business executive F. John Rey on the management topic page on about.com.

Sure, it’s all fun and games until someone shows up in an X-rated biblical costume, or one that implies that a certain group of people is more likely to be inebriated or intoxicated or indicted, or one that cropdusts the room with loose feathers or beads, or one that poses a safety hazard so serious that an OSHA representative could only stare, mute but for the whimpering.

Photo by Jerekeys via FLICKR

Photo by Jerekeys via FLICKR.

This is why EHTC CPAs & Business Consultants and others advise employers to have guidelines and to remind employees that the office is still a place of business. Supervisors, too, sometimes need that reminder as evidenced by former Assistant Secretary Julie Myers of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In 2007, she hosted and judged an employee Halloween costume party, choosing a white man who had darkened his face with makeup, put on dreadlocks and wore a striped uniform to denote being an escaped prisoner. Myers later apologized, reassigned the employee, and had the photos destroyed. It was too late. The incident made national news.

Poor judgment in Halloween costumes usually has more localized effects, but potentially powerful effects. Fellow employees have long memories of misbehavior. Supervisors can make short shrift of someone who will trade their credibility for something as obviously wrong-headed as a skimpy costume in the office. I doubt that in the years before Kimberly Dahms decided to sue her employer for sexual harassment, she considered that the Halloween costumes she wore to office parties would be used as evidence against her complaint. They were. A Massachusetts judge ruled that five photographs of Ms Dahms in Halloween costumes could be considered as her former employer, Cognex Corp., made a case that Ms Dahms dressed provocatively. Oddly enough, a picture of her male former boss in a dress at a company event was also admitted.

Presumably, most businesses don’t devolve into cleavage and catcalls just because it’s Halloween. Missoula employers seem able to trust their workers’ common sense. Laurie Pfau at the City of Missoula’s human resources department said city employees are free to wear costumes on Halloween and as far as she knows, there haven’t been any problems.

Here’s to keeping it that way.


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Chery Sabol is an employment consultant at the Missoula Job Service, an organization that offers programs and services to assist employers and job seekers alike. Those looking for employment can view job openings on our job board, website, and social media outlets. Employment consultants provide résumé reviews, conduct practice interviews, and offer skills testing.

The Job Service also provides a self-service area where job seekers have access to phones, a fax machine, a copier, and computers. Our qualified staff also offers business consulting services, including employee recruitment and retention assistance. Additionally, we provide financial support for businesses looking to train both new and current employees.

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