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Halloween: A COVID-19 Appropriate Workplace Trick or Treat?

While Halloween is not an official holiday like Christmas or Thanksgiving, it is considered the second largest commercial holiday in the United States. According to CNN’s 2020 Halloween statistics based on the National Retail Federation predictions, “More than 148 million Americans will celebrate Halloween this year, with 53% percent of consumers planning to decorate their homes and 46% planning to carve a pumpkin. Total spending in 2020 will reach $8.05 billion, with the average consumer planning to spend $92.12 on decorations, candy, costumes and more.” (https://www.cnn.com/2013/06/13/us/halloween-fast-facts/index.html). This enthusiasm for Halloween impacts workplaces every year and, in the pre-COVID era, many employers planned and hosted organization-wide activities to celebrate the holiday. After all, celebrating Halloween by allowing employees to dress up in fun, yet appropriate costumes, and having activities associated with the holiday promotes an atmosphere of playfulness and often breaks down barriers among departments or teams.  Even though Halloween may have some potentially adverse issues in light of compliance with federal and state laws, Halloween celebrations have built team skills, promoted creativity and developed camaraderie, all of which are activities that help reduce stress and shape a positive organizational culture among employees. Below are a few general words of caution as well as suggestions as employers consider which activities to incorporate into their workplace.

  • Respecting the diverse opinions of employees is critical to the success of any celebration and no employee should feel pressured to participate. All events should be voluntary and employers should ask employees what activities they’d like to participate in, if anything.  Sending out a survey prior to the holiday asking how employees would like to celebrate is critical to the celebration’s success. Involving employees in the planning activities also may be beneficial as they may have creative ideas for involving coworkers who typically don’t participate in employer-sponsored activities.
  • On the other hand, some employees, who may be followers of the Celtic-based religion Wicca, may consider Halloween a religious holiday.  Employers may need to accommodate these employees if an employee requests the day off as a religious holiday. Religious accommodations need to be made consistently within the workplace and in compliance with federal and state laws.
  • One of the most common activities associated with Halloween is, of course, dressing up in costumes. Employers should set guidelines on the types of costumes and accessories that may be worn. Sexually suggestive, politically-themed, culturally insensitive, or obsessively scary costumes that are not appropriate may need to be banned and accessories like guns, swords, etc., even if they are fake, should not be used, even in remote workplace settings.  In an era where there are continual workplace violence concerns and sexual harassment claims all over the news, many costumes may leave the employer open to legal action, even in virtual settings.
  • Wearing costumes with flowing robes near large machinery is an obvious injury waiting to happen, but even at home, there are dangers. Employers with remote workers should understand that if employees are injured on the job, even at home, they may be faced with a workers’ compensation claim.  All employer-sponsored activities should be weighed for safety concerns. Halloween pranking may also need to be addressed as a safety concern, especially in a workplace culture that is geared toward younger adults.
  • Halloween is a great time to showcase employee talents and hobbies outside of the normal workplace. There may be an employee who enjoys taking photographs and who would agree to record and memorialize the Halloween festivities. Others may enjoy decorating or baking, and any appropriate event that shows off employee talents is valued. Of course, if food is shared, it is recommended that the planning team add healthy alternatives to sweets and be sensitive to food allergies that employees may have.
  • Some organizations make Halloween a family day and invite the children of employees for events. Any activity that includes family members may build a bond between employees and their coworkers and help the employees’ families feel more connected to their loved one’s workplace. Of course, typical in-person activities such as trick or treating, bobbing for apples and carving pumpkins (with safe equipment, of course) may need to be replaced with appropriate socially-distanced or virtual activities.
  • Allow employees to spend the day volunteering at a local homeless shelter. Whatever the employer decides to do should be geared to try and involve everyone but, again, activities should be voluntary without pressure to participate.
  • Remember that nonexempt employees should not be required to use personal time for any employer-sponsored events where participation is required. Instead, employees should be told to include this time on their time record for the purpose of calculating overtime hours.

Obviously, in the midst of the current COVID-19 realities, Halloween celebrations this year may look very different given federal, state and local COVID-19 requirements such as social distancing and the wearing of face coverings. For those organizations where employees are working remotely, employers may consider creative ways to celebrate their employees during the Halloween season, such as:

  • Sending employees’, a care package with goodies such as candies, gift cards to Starbucks, and even creative face coverings.
  • Providing a virtual Halloween party where the employer has a meal delivered to employees and a video conferencing call is used to “eat” together. At a party like this, an employer could present employee awards and host games with prizes, such as bingo, trivia competitions, or counting the number of candy corn in a jar.
  • Sponsoring a virtual costume contest, allowing all employees to vote electronically for their favorite.
  • Providing a virtual office game for team building, such as a virtual escape office room.
  • Having a contest where employees are able to be creative with photoshopping images on certain topics, with appropriate boundaries, of course.
  • Providing the materials for decorating personalized Halloween masks that may also be used for social distancing, and, through video conferences, have a contest with prizes for the most creative masks.
  • Holding a cookie decorating contest by providing cookie decorating materials to employees and allowing them to judge each employee’s best cookie virtually.

A lot of employees are struggling with the remote workplace and feel disconnected and isolated. Any type of celebrations, virtual or in-person, will help employees feel appreciated and less disconnected in this day and age of social distancing. Employee objections, legal questions, religious issues, and even COVID-19 restrictions should not mean that an employer should ban celebrations and forget the holiday. The constraints may make the workplace holiday a little different this year, but with the appropriate planning and sensitivity to employee feelings, employers may sponsor a fun environment and promote camaraderie while celebrating the ghoulish holiday. 

For additional information on this topic, please contact us at www.newfocushr.com.

Written by:  Kathi Walker, SHRM-SCP, PHR

                      Sr. HR Consultant





New Focus HR is a human resources consulting and training company that services all organizations. Our expert team collaborates with businesses to attract, motivate, retrain and retain their biggest assets, employees. While engaged with an organization, our focus is to find solutions that improve the company’s internal HR-related practices while increasing results at the same time! Our focus. Your results.