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Trick or Treat – Celebrating Halloween at Work

Employment Law & HR

Halloween has firmly cemented its place in British culture, becoming a close second to Christmas when it comes to total consumer spending on a holiday. And it’s not just children that take part, with adults across the country donning their witches hats and cat ears on 31st October. To keep up with this growing trend, more and more employers are partaking in the annual celebrations by throwing Halloween parties or encouraging employees to turn up to work in imaginative costumes.

Whilst being allowed to dress up in the office can be a treat for employees, insensitive or offensive costumes can land employers in a tricky situation. A day of seemingly harmless fun could end up in costly legal issues concerning discrimination, harassment or workplace violence.

As people strive for an original costume idea, it may be tempting employees to ditch the vampire teeth in favour of dressing up as controversial public figure. However, it is more important than ever for employers to set expectations ahead of time about what is and isn’t appropriate. Given that people may have different ideas on what is appropriate, here would be no harm in employers making it clear that costumes linked to protected characteristics in any way that could be offensive to others are strictly prohibited.

Halloween this year falls on the Brexit deadline which means employees might be tempted to dress for the occasion in a politically current disguise, with some party shops now selling ‘No Deal Brexit’ and ‘Hard Border’ costumes. However, such a costume could lead to unwelcome office tensions and employers would be well minded to encourage staff to give political costumes a miss altogether. Further, whilst support of a political party does not in itself amount to a belief warranting protection under the Equality Act 2010, case law indicates that a belief in a political philosophy or doctrine could qualify.

If your business involves direct contact with customers or clients, employers should also carefully consider whether allowing employees free reign with their costumes presents a frightening risk of complaints and whether this sends the right message about the business. For example, dressing as the Grim Reaper is unlikely to go down well in a healthcare setting. Depending on the nature of your business, you may also request that any client meetings are scheduled off-site and that employees should wear their normal business attire for these meetings.

Employers who are particularly wary about relying on their employees’ good taste and judgment regarding costumes may be advised to draft a brief policy clearly defining what is and isn’t acceptable attire for the 31st October. This could remove any discrepancies if it comes to having to discipline a member of staff for an out-of-line costume after the event.

When done right, Halloween celebrations can be a great chance to introduce some light relief to the workplace. However, to avoid any scary situations this Halloween employers may wish to leave employees with this parting wisdom when planning their costumes: if in doubt, don’t!

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