Office Halloween Parties That Won’t Scare Your Lawyer

Celebrating Halloween in the workplace can be a fun diversion for your staff but it can scare the dickens out of your employment lawyer or human resources personnel unless you follow some important steps for safe and liability-free partying.

Voluntary v. Mandatory Attendance

While it is tempting to tell everyone to join in the fun, mandatory attendance at an office function may require the employer to consider the time as “hours worked” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  This means that non-exempt employees would have to be paid and that the time spent at the party would count in determining whether an employee is entitled to overtime for working more than 40 hours in the week.  The same is true for employees who are told they must come early to set up or stay late to clean up.

Mandatory attendance may also contribute to a finding that injuries suffered at the event are covered under workers compensation and that accidents caused by employees having left the party are attributable to the company.

If you do make attendance voluntary, do not “guilt” people into coming or suggest they might be sorry if they do not attend.  Also, do not conduct any business or worked-related activities (e.g. training, announcements, distribution of bonuses) at the party – this might transform the event into a work function.

Alcohol

What could go wrong with office mates drinking too much alcohol while wearing identity-concealing masks or costumes? As with all workplace events, controlling the effects of alcohol should be a priority.  If you are not going to ban alcohol altogether, consider the following:

– Limiting the drinks to beer and wine. Serving spirits makes it easier to over imbibe.

– Limiting the number of drinks through a ticket system or a cash bar.

– Having plenty of non-alcoholic options available, as well as lots of food.

– Planning activities, games or other diversions so that drinking is not the primary social activity.

– Hiring independent 3rd party bartenders to monitor and control usage.

– Provide transportation for those who might need it.

Costumes and Decorations

Costumes can be a great deal of fun but they can also interfere with everyone’s good time:

– Overtly political costumes should be prohibited. Given the divisive nature of our current political environment, no good can come from allowing people to come dressed as Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, etc.  The same should be true in regard to polarizing or antagonistic historical figures.

– Costumes depicting religious figures, or those that stereotype certain races, nationalities or other protected characteristics, also should not be permitted.

– Overly gory or violent imagery also should be discouraged. Halloween can still be fun without depictions of hangings, decapitations or graveyards causing distress to certain partiers.

– Halloween seems to be a time when people want to dress and act more provocatively than usual. The office party is probably not a good place for someone to dress as “The Sexy Office Manager” or to come to the party in a Harvey Weinstein costume.

– Make sure that everyone wears a costume that is safe in the workplace. Employees should not wear overly cumbersome costumes or masks that restrict their vision.

Religious Beliefs

Remember that Halloween has a religious context and those who wish either to observe the holiday more seriously or avoid celebrating it altogether should be accommodated.  This is why attendance should be optional – those who wish to observe Halloween in a particular manner or not observe it at all should not be forced to attend a function that offends them.

Bottom Line

Parents are often heard to say “It’s all fun until someone gets hurt.” This applies equally to office holiday parties. With a little advance planning, everyone can have a safe and enjoyable time.