What is it about Halloween that brings out the best and the worst in us?
Maybe it's the origins of All Hallows Eve, with its references to graveyards, ghosts, skeletons, spooky spirits, etc.? Some of us remember shouting "Trick or Treat for Unicef" and collecting pennies in orange boxes along with bags or buckets full of candy. However, many of us can't forget viral photo of a young woman showing up for work on Halloween dressed as a Boston Marathon bombing victim.
No Holds Barred in the Millennium
Somewhere along the way, Halloween became raunchy; not for everyone, of course. Acceptable boundary lines blurred, or disappeared altogether. Consider just a few costumes from recent Halloweens found on the Internet (we won't link to them here):
• The twin towers, with flames and airplanes sticking out of them • Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky clutching half-naked boys • Jesus having sex with a mannequin
Granted, those were photos taken at private parties that found their way onto the blogosphere. And the appeal of instant infamy aided by Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram no doubt accounts for some people's apparent lack of taste or decency. But people can do whatever they want in their own homes – including offending their guests, some of whom are apparently amused by such antics, right?
But where do we draw the line in the workplace?
Offices Still Have Limits – Or Should
According to the National Retail Federation, Halloween is now an $8 billion holiday, including costumes for the entire family, scary décor and sweets galore. A national survey from a few years ago indicated that more than a third of employees celebrate Halloween at work, and more than one fourth dress up for the occasion. So are we safe in assuming that these individuals engage in good, clean fun?
For the most part. But there have been reports in recent years of employees dressing up as a turd; a tampon (complete with Tampax label); men and women decked out in opposite-sex drag; and even individuals donning black face to make fun of athletes or celebrities. Needless to say, those are all examples of pushing the envelope into racist, sexist or ethnic political incorrectness. People can be hurt, careers can be damaged, and employers can face legal challenges – and have been, on all counts.
So Lighten Up Already
But, aren't these incidents mainly outliers? In a word, yes.
Most people who observe Halloween at work and dress up for it are in it for the fun. They're not looking to endanger their jobs or offend their co-workers – especially in a national economy that's still well below full employment.
As HR professionals, we're all aware of what is and is not acceptable in the workplace, as SHRM guidelines remind us every year.
It's 2014, and it is Halloween. No doubt people will show up at parties dressed as Joan Rivers in a coma, or Baltimore Raven Ray Rice dragging around a lifeless female mannequin.
Ebola haz-mat suits are expected to be all the rage. There will even doubtless be some Ebola victims, complete with spewing bodily fluids. Other than the odd haz-mat suit (because it's relatively easy to create), these are not likely to be workplace revelers.
So we can lament the by-gone halcyon days of razor blade-loaded apples and massacred pumpkins; or we can recognize that we live in a different era now, shrug our shoulders, and move one. Maybe we'll even have a chuckle or two, even if just to ourselves.
As far as Halloween at work goes, let's think of it as an opportunity for some morale-boosting and a day to let our hair down for a few hours and be silly. What's the worst that can happen? (Don't answer. It was rhetorical) What's the most tasteless or embarrassing costume you've ever seen at work? Let us know. Here's wishing you lots of treats (and maybe a few tricks).