Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

Here are answers to some questions from readers about Halloween at work.

1. My boss goes overboard for Halloween

I've worked six years for a man who goes way over the top with Halloween. Our office becomes a haunted dungeon with spooky lighting, a disturbing soundtrack, gothic pictures and dust covers, and toys that use sensors to jump out at people and make loud noises. For reasons I don't understand, my boss loves this.

I hate it. I have PTSD from a bad childhood and the whole thing increases my anxiety. Especially the soundtrack can make me spin out. If I didn't have an office with a door, I wouldn't be able to work here.

I've thought of asking him not to do it. He probably would stop if I asked -- but then he would resent me for years. Maybe forever. I don't want the damage to my career. I've heard several people say they don't like it or are afraid of the toys, so I'm not the only one. But no one wants to burst his bubble, and there are a handful who enjoy it. I have some earplugs I bought for a music show I ended up not going to and I think I'll bring them in so I won't have to hear the soundtrack when I leave my office. Do I have any other options?

Green responds:

When you have legitimate grounds to worry that you'll be penalized in some way for asking your boss or employer to change a policy or practice (and "penalized" includes just having a more tense, less positive relationship with your boss), and when you're not the only one who would like that change, it's often best to speak up as a group. So why not speak up with a few of your coworkers and at least address the music and the motion-activated toys? You could all explain that it's distracting and even unsettling, and ask him to retire them. He'd have to be a special kind of jerk to hear that and still insist on forcing a "celebration" on people that they've told him outright they find disturbing.

2. Do I have to wear a Halloween costume to work?

I am the assistant to the head of a nonprofit human services agency. The culture of the agency includes having the employees and the volunteers wear costumes to work on Halloween. In all of my long work history, wearing costumes to work on Halloween has never before been a part of the workplace culture. Part of my work involves interacting with the public, and I don't believe it's correct to for staff to wear Halloween costumes in the workplace, especially when interacting with members of the public.

Since I joined the agency four years ago, I have worn a black pantsuit on Halloween and kept a witch's hat visible next to my desk. Now, with Halloween upon us again, my manager has reminded everyone to wear costumes on Halloween and said people who do will would get to leave work early that day, while anyone not in costume would have to stay until the normal closing time.

I plan on following my usual practice of wearing a black pantsuit and bringing the witch's hat to work. Almost all of the rest of the staff, including the manager, show up each Halloween in new and specially purchased costumes, but I believe that I am observing the letter of the office custom, if not the spirit. Am I under any obligation to do anything differently?

Green responds:

No. Some people might think you're being a bit of a party pooper, but it's not something that should have any real ramifications for you at work. In fact, it seems clear that it's not a requirement, based on your manager's wording that people not wearing costumes will just work until their normal ending time.

For what it's worth, though, I think you're being too much of a stickler when you say people shouldn't wear Halloween costumes to work, especially if they're interacting with the public. There are certainly some jobs where that's true. For example, if you're a doctor, you shouldn't be giving patients bad news about their health while dressed as a giant banana. But for most jobs, it's not inherently unprofessional to wear a costume, and if the culture of a particular office is one where people do that, that's a perfectly reasonable way for that office to run.

None of that obligates you to dress up if you'd rather not, and anyone who gives you a hard time about that is being a bit of a jerk, since different people have different preferences around this stuff. But just as they shouldn't be judgy about your personal preferences on this, I'd urge you not to judge people who enjoy dressing up as either.

3. My office keeps pranking my coworker who's afraid of clowns

I have a coworker who is terrified of clowns. He is popular in the office, and sometimes one of my other coworkers thinks it's funny to change his wallpaper on his laptop to a scary clown picture or something of that nature. He will react in what the others think is a funny manner by screaming or running out of the building. Well, this month due to Halloween, they have been pranking him daily and have even taken up a collection to buy a clown costume to wear on Halloween itself. I want to tell him about it because I think it is juvenile, but I worry about repercussions from my boss because she is a driving force behind it. What should I do?

Green responds:

If your coworker seems to be genuinely terrified and not in on the fun, you should tell him because it's profoundly crappy to set out to terrify someone. If your boss confronts you about it, you can say, "I assumed it was all a joke, since I didn't think you would really set out to intentionally terrify him while he's trying to work."

You could also tell your coworker that you'll support him if he wants to lay down the law with your coworkers about never doing this again or if he wants to speak to your boss or HR about it.

4. Wearing a Halloween costume to an interview

I have an interview on Halloween. Would it be ok to wear a costume to show my fun spirit?

Green responds:

Nooooo. Unless you're interviewing someone where "fun spirit" is a major and key job requirement, this would be a very bad idea (and even then, I wouldn't do it).

While I'm sure there's some interviewer out there who would appreciate it and think it's awesome, there are far more who will find it off-key and inappropriate for a professional situation. Plus, you want the focus on your qualifications, not what you're wearing.

5. Does it look childish to take Halloween off?

Does anyone care what days their colleagues use their vacation time? I ask because I planned to take Halloween off and, as a late-20s woman, wondered if it seemed childish. I requested it three weeks in advance, and it was quickly approved. I just wanted a day off, and Halloween at work is a total productivity-free zone. I've never done it before, but I have a lot of PTO left. My company provides really generous PTO, to the point where a large portion of employees take part of or the entire month of December off. I don't want to do that -- for my mental health and the pace of the projects I manage, I choose to scatter my PTO throughout the year, including on my birthday.

Green responds:

You're fine! Most people won't even connect you being out with Halloween, unless you announce that's why you're taking the day off. And it's no big deal to take off your birthday and other random days, as long as you have the time off to use. Obviously, don't make a whole big thing about how important your birthday is, or proclaim that's awful that other people work on Arbor Day, or so forth. But otherwise, you're fine.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

Published on: Oct 31, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.