Costumes aren't what they used to be. Here's how to keep your office out of a cauldron of legal hot water this All Hallow's Eve.
Remember the good ol' days when a sheet with eye holes was considered a great Halloween costume?
Well, these days many of the costume choices available on the market look much different and, well, are not as innocent as in decades past. As a business owner, what do you do when the costumes at the office party look like they would be better worn in a night club?
When I was in grade school, each class was allowed to have exactly three parties a year; Halloween was my favorite. Everyone dressed up and got candy; parents didn't complain about Christian undertones or the fact that little Timmy didn't get a Valentine from Jane. Unfortunately, as I've grown, Halloween seems to have lost its innocence. It's more difficult each year to find a costume without the word "sexy" in the title (sexy nun…really?) or a person who actually means "candy" when asking you for a treat.
As a business owner, I am sure that you want to offer all your employees a great time of non-controversy this All Hallow's Eve. But before you announce the next workplace costume contest, take a breath…beware…and be prepared.
I'm not saying that costume parties are bad, or that they should be banned.
However, if you leave things up to the masses, you might get a little more than you bargained for. So, think through a few things and use these concepts to guide your employees into a safe and fun time.
1. Know your business, and allow for exceptions.
Allowing dress-up on a business day may make your business come off as unprofessional. For instance, you will probably find that meetings take longer when everyone is laughing (or cringing) at those in costume. For those that regularly deal with international companies (guess what--they may not know what Halloween even is), you might want to steer clear, or at least give your visitors a heads up. For retail stores, costumes may confuse consumers--so make sure there is still a way to identify your team members. Nobody wants to hear: "Is anyone working here today?"
2. If you can get away with it, use the word "tasteful" in the announcement.
Have a costume party and let people get into it, but please be sure to give people the heads up that inappropriate costumes will not be tolerated. Spread the word that if you have doubts, just see a supervisor, and make sure your supervisors know when to come to you. A little preparation can go a long way to prevent a misunderstanding. But I will be clear: there is no bright line rule as to where the line is. Sure, there are costumes that are WELL over the line, but more often than not, you will be presented with a gray area. Make a judgment call, communicate it, listen and enforce your decision. You are the boss after all.
3. Sexual harassment laws do not take a break for the holidays.
A sexy costume is one thing, and it's pretty easy to spot. But if one of your employees decides to "act out" his Dirty Secret Service outfit and mistreat someone in the office then you are going to hear about it in the complaint.
4. The same goes for hostile work environment laws.
Allowing costumes that cross a line, especially political and religious costumes, or costumes that make fun of a protected class, can leave fellow workers feeling like you don't care about the rules.
If you are concerned that some of your employees will confuse "adult" Halloween with "work" Halloween, then I have a few tips that you can use to stay on the right side, and not be seen as the Grinch that stole Halloween (I know, I'm mixing my holidays, but you get the point)!
So, follow these tips this Halloween.
1. Don't allow them at all (duh!). If you still want to be the "fun boss," then have some novelty accessories (like animals ears, vampire teeth, mustaches on a stick, etc.) waiting for everyone on Halloween (along with treats!), so you're still in control--and they can still dress up.
2. Set out guidelines and communicate them in advance. It's also a good time to remind everyone of sexual harassment & tolerance policies. Examples:
"Employees must stick to current dress code or uniforms." This generally limits costumes to accessories, like wigs, glasses, and the like.
"No low cut or super short outfits, politics, alcohol or drug themes…." You get the picture…keep it classy.
Have a "pre-themed" Halloween party: like the military, the Wild West, aliens, or Charlie Brown. Or have people come as their favorite celebrity.
Tell all your employees to bring a standard change of clothes in case the business requires it (Of course, you can use this if any costume is offensive).
3. Set rules about kids. Consider opening your office to allow children to trick or treat (provide candy); people seem to edit themselves better when they know children will see them.
4. Be prepared to take disciplinary action, if necessary. Hey, it wouldn't be the first time someone was fired over a costume. Just be sure to apply said discipline consistently.
In the end, if you're not already freaked out...try not to worry too much. Most people know the line and know not to cross it. Even if they do, as long as you control the situation, you can nip potential claims in the bud by being aware, being involved, and speaking up. I don't know about you, but this year I'm thinking of going as the invisible man…what, how would you know I'm not at work!?
CHAS RAMPENTHAL is general counsel and vice president of product development at LegalZoom. He's also a former talk radio host (KTLK AM 1150 at Clear Channel) and an entrepreneur himself, as the founder of LegalEndeavor. @LegalZoom