October is a month when we collectively deal with our fears, personifying them with ghosts, goblins, witches and zombies and culminating in the ever spooky Halloween. A recent survey in the UK revealed that worker fears were a little more down-to-earth, with public speaking and interviews topping the list of things that scared workers the most. When it comes to folks here in the U.S., the Chapman University’s second annual survey reveals what Americans fear the most – and the results might be surprising.

For Human Resource managers, the Halloween season holds a potential cornucopia of horrors: sexual harassment, hostile work environment, workers comp, discrimination, and more. There’s the annual conundrum: do you hold a Halloween celebration at your workplace? And even if you don’t encourage one, are you prepared for the random employee costume?

Susan M. Heathfield always offers sensible advice on making a workplace Halloween safe and fun, while sidestepping many of the legal pitfalls. Among her tips:

  • To avoid sexual harassment charges, remind employees that costumes should be G-rated
  • To minimize chances of a hostile work environment, tell employees to steer clear of costumes that demean political parties or figures, show insensitivity to employee religions and nationalities, and make fun of diseases such as mental illness

Shari Lau, SHRM’s knowledge manager, offers some tips on avoiding  Halloween Horrors at the workplace.  She suggests:

  • Training your managers.
  • Enforcing the current dress code
  • Having a backup plan – if you do have costumes, ask people to have a change of clothing

Eric J. Greco of HR Legalist weighs in with best practices for employers hosting Halloween office parties:

If an employer does host a Halloween party, it should adopt the following straightforward and obvious guidelines prohibiting costumes that are: (i) sexually suggestive; (ii) offensive based on age, sex or sexual orientation, religion, national origin, race or other protected group. Moreover, if an employee presents themselves to work in an inappropriate costume, the employer should address the situation immediately and attempt to find a solution to bring the employee into compliance with the employer’s guidelines (i.e., ask them to change into something more appropriate or go home to change, or, if necessary, consider disciplinary action).

Karen Michael talks about how Halloween events at work can cause legal fright.   She urges employers to prohibit costumes altogether, but barring that, offers the following tips to mimit potential problems:

  • If you let workers wear costumes, avoid emphasizing them with a costume party or contest. Also, don’t allow employees to do a variety show or skits.
  • Expressly prohibit props that look like weapons, face-painting, masks or anything that could cause identity confusion.
  • If you allow employees to wear costumes, consider a theme, such as favorite sports teams.
  • Consider focusing on the fall, such as an autumn festival, instead of Halloween. Have corn tosses, best apple pie contest, pumpkin spice coffee and the like if a party is critical to employee morale.
  • If your organization is hosting a Halloween party, don’t make it mandatory. Employees with sincerely held religious beliefs shouldn’t have to choose between their work or their religion.

We dust off some advice we liked from Fisher & Phillips last year, on  Tips to Ensure Your Office Halloween Party Doesn’t Turn Into a Nightmare – we’re excerpting some of their pre-planning suggestions.

• Decide if costumes are appropriate for the workplace.
• Clearly communicate costume guidelines in advance.
• Remind employees they are still at work, despite the holiday overtone.
• Don’t overreact, but be sensitive to the issues.
• Consider any feedback the company received from employees or customers concerning last year’s Halloween party or employee costumes.
• Offer alternative celebrations.
• Be prepared to discipline for misconduct, if necessary.

We’d add a few points:

• Make any celebrations or parties optional. Nothing says workers comp quite like “mandatory” fun.
• Be sure to add “safety” to your costume guidelines.
• Discourage tricks or pranks that could scare others or pose a safety hazard.

We like the idea of alternative celebrations. We’re recycling and expanding on ideas we’ve suggested in the past:

• Have a family event geared to kids. Let kids and pets come in costumes
• Organize a “trick or treat” event for a local nursing home or have an event to raise money for a charity. A zombie walk might be fun!
• Sponsor a pumpkin carving contest
• Have a Halloween pot-luck lunch with themed food
• Sponsor a blood drive on Halloween and offer treats for participants. A zombie or vampire theme might be fun.

Other useful seasonal advice:

HR – Take the Spooky Out of Halloween at Your Workplace

Can the ‘Naughty Nurse’ and Modern Workplace Coexist?

Halloween Celebrations Can Lead to Scary Situations

Of Ebola, Terrorists and Plane Crashes – News headlines may inspire Halloween costumes that offend, create liability

Trick or Treat: Can Employers Face Liability for Celebrating Halloween in the Workplace?

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