Tasteful, nonpolitical, nonreligious Halloween costumes OK in workplace

Spirit Halloween Manager Aaron Thompson holds up Mitt Romney and Barack Obama Halloween masks. KELLY MERRITT

Spirit Halloween Manager Aaron Thompson holds up Mitt Romney and Barack Obama Halloween masks. KELLY MERRITT

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— One person's humor can be another's misery.

Halloween parties in the workplace may seem innocent enough, but the fun can prompt concerns of harassment when costumes convey messages.

"It's great to have a party. It's a morale booster," said Deb Keary, vice president of the Society for Human Resources in Alexandria, Va. "But with Halloween, you have to be careful. Stay away from the political, stay away from the religious and dress appropriately. Remember, it's still a workplace."

There's movement among some companies to scale back on the Halloween celebrations although her association hasn't surveyed members to see if a trend is developing.

"Some are cutting back," Keary said. "It depends on the individual workplace."

Karen Sutherland, an employment and labor attorney in Seattle, has seen more inquiries from business owners in recent years about workplace Halloween parties.

"But it's usually after an issue arises," she said, referring to inappropriate behavior and potential claims of harassment.

A male worker pinches a female colleague to see what is part of a costume and what is not, or there's a joke that is out of line and offends someone. After occurrences like that, Sutherland said, employers decide to set the tone and lay down some rules.

"What you are seeing is some attempt to provide guidance," Sutherland said.

She suggests that employees be told to limit props when it comes to items like guns or chains, limit masks because of safety concerns, and outright prohibit costumes that can be construed as offensive based on age, sex, religion, national origin or race when it reinforces stereotypes. Guidelines need to be clear to prohibit anything sexually suggestive.

When it comes to costumes disrupting productivity, the solution is to limit them to a certain time of day.

"Generally, employers deal with it by having costumes at a lunchtime party," Sutherland said.

So far, Sutherland said, none of her business clients have faced lawsuits over workplace Halloween parties.

In Southwest Florida, several large employers contacted said they haven't cracked down on costumes but that's not to say it won't happen some day.

The Lee Memorial Health System in Lee County doesn't have a written policy on Halloween costumes but it does ask employees to dress appropriately, said Mary Briggs, hospital spokeswoman.

Lee Memorial has 4,000 employees at its four hospitals and outpatient centers.

"For example, scary or ghoulish costumes are not a good idea," she said. "Participating in Halloween activities is left up to each department. Some staff like to team up and deliver treats to patients and other staff."

On a serious note, the hospital system is committed to a work environment in which all individuals are treated with respect and dignity, she said.

"Any employee who wore a costume that disregarded that commitment would receive appropriate coaching or corrective action," Briggs said.

Lakeland-based Publix doesn't take issue with Halloween costumes for its employees, who are called "associates," and they can dress up Oct. 31, Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten said.

At the same time, dressing up is allowed "providing the costumes are appropriate, in good taste and safe for work," she said.

With respect to costumes potentially causing some workplace disruption, Patten said that isn't an issue. In Collier and Lee counties, Publix has 52 stores and nearly 6,400 employees.

"We do not have any concerns about this affecting productivity," she said.

Halloween is low on the scale when it comes to affecting how much gets done in the workplace, Keary said.

"It's just a short time. It's not like March Madness," she said, referring to the NCAA basketball tournament.

John Challenger, chief executive officer of the Chicago-based executive outpatient firm, Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said he hasn't heard of any action that companies may take to crack down on the workplace Halloween celebrations. Still, they are concerned about employees' behavior.

"I think companies are always careful about holding events when they get out of hand," he said. "People can be offended when people won't act in an appropriate way and go over the boundaries of taste and put employees and the company in a difficult position."

During the current election season, the country is so polarized and because of social media, the divide between the workplace and personal time has become fuzzy, he said.

Likewise, the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club allows employees to dress up in costumes and even has a parade in its main lobby at 2 p.m. for employees to show their costumes, said Patsy Carbone, the human resources director.

She can't recall anytime in the 17 years she's been with the hotel that anyone has dressed inappropriately. She attributes that to respect that employees have to the Watkins family, the hotel's longtime owners, and the workplace culture.

"We just ask our employees to dress tastefully," Carbone said. "I think that says a lot to adults."

The costume parade in the lobby even attracts some guests to dress up and take part, she said. The hotel informs guests that a Halloween parade will be taking place.If ever there was an issue with an employee's costume, Carbone said, they would address it.

Arthrex, a Naples-based medical device manufacturing firm, doesn't have a formal policy stating employees cannot wear a costume on Halloween or can't have a Halloween party during the day, company spokeswoman Lisa Gardiner said.

"We haven't told employees they can't do that ... it hasn't been an issue," she said, adding that employees don't dress up and that's likely because of the professional work atmosphere.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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