Halloween Costumes at Work: Yea or Nay?

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Halloween might seem largely like an opportunity to eat a lot of candy and drink pumpkin beer, but judging by my inbox it’s also rife with opportunities for things to go really weird at the office. Here are some questions from readers about Halloween and work.

‘Any guidelines for wearing a costume to the office?’

I’ve worked places where people like to dress up in costumes for Halloween, and sometimes I’ve wondered if I’m being too uptight or if my coworkers just have terrible judgment. I’ve seen people wear costumes that show a ton of skin (something I might wear to a bar but not to the office), costumes that seem insensitive or outright racist (like ones based on cultural stereotypes), and costumes that just seem impractical (a guy I once worked with kept a full-body gorilla suit on the whole day, and it was not easy to hear him talk through it). I’d think my employers would have laid out guidelines for costumes but they never did! So what are the right guidelines for Halloween costumes at work?

You covered the big ones! Costumes at work shouldn’t be sexualized, play on racist or cultural tropes, or interfere with your ability to do your job. It’s also worth thinking about what situations you might find yourself in on any given day and how appropriate your costume will be should one arise. For example, if you have to deliver bad news to clients or colleagues, you probably shouldn’t do that in costume … or at least, if you do wear one, choose something easily removed or modified so you’re not, for example, giving someone terrible news about their health while dressed as a porcupine.

Ideally, employers would lay out these guardrails ahead of time. Often, though, they end up providing them only after something has gone horribly wrong (or they choose to shut down Halloween entirely at that point). As for what to do about enforcing those guidelines, most of the time it makes sense to let the offender’s manager deal with it (or not), although if something is egregious (like blackface), you absolutely have standing to ask that it be addressed.

‘I don’t want to wear a Halloween costume to work!’

My office is big into dressing up for Halloween. Some people go all out with really elaborate costumes (my boss in particular rents extremely fancy ones) and pretty much everyone wears something creative. I am not into this at all, although I usually go along with it. Last year, though, I just wore a witch’s hat with my regular work clothes and people seemed really disappointed. 

This year, I can’t summon the energy to do it. I’ve had a hard few months, with a lot of family health stuff, and I’d just really rather sit it out. I don’t want to be a wet blanket, but can I just skip it this year without getting labeled a bad team player or something? Do I have to explain why I’m not participating? 

Consider this official permission not to dress up for Halloween this year. You don’t need to offer a big explanation about why; you can simply say in a breezy tone, “Too much else going on this year!” Or hell, feel free to claim you forgot the day entirely until arriving at work.

It’s very unlikely that this will get you labeled “not a team player” unless it’s part of a larger pattern your manager was already concerned about, in which case it’s not really about the costume anyway.

‘My office goes overboard for Halloween’

A bunch of people in my office love Halloween and go all-out with decorations every year. In the past that’s meant black and orange streamers and balloons, pumpkins everywhere, fake cobwebs, and some fake skeletons. I have no problem with that!

But this year, some of my coworkers went way overboard. They started decorating in early October, and it seems like they’ve been adding additional decorations every day. At this point we have some really grisly stuff in all our common areas — I’m talking about fake mangled corpses hanging in the hallways, a headless ghoul, a disturbingly realistic cut off head, and other pretty macabre stuff. The past week, they’ve also been playing Halloween noises in common areas: spooky music that’s interrupted periodically by screams.

No one else seems bothered by it, but I hate it. I don’t want to spend my days surrounded by all this grisliness, and having my concentration broken by the sound of screams is really unpleasant!  

It’s too late for this year, but is there a way to make sure this doesn’t happen next year? I don’t want to have to work from home the whole month of October.

It’s completely reasonable not to want to work around grisly representations of death! I’d bet you’re not the only one who would prefer to go back to the less gruesome themes of previous years, and you’re definitely not the only one who’s bothered by those screams.

Next year, talk to whoever organizes the decorations well ahead of time (probably by mid-September at the latest since they started in early October this year) and say something like, “Last year, our Halloween decorations got really dark and grisly with fake corpses and cut-off heads and recordings of people screaming. I had a lot of trouble working around that. Could we tone it down this year and stick more to pumpkins and witches so it’s not as creepy?” Odds are they’ll understand and dial it back, but if they don’t, you can escalate the issue to HR or your boss.

‘Is it weird to take Halloween off from work?’

I love Halloween — like really, really love it. I’ve never done this, but I’ve always wanted to take October 31st off and make it a day-long event where I sit around watching spooky movies, drinking apple cider, and eating a ton of candy. But I’m 32. Am I going to look childish if I request the day off next year? (I also wonder this about taking my birthday off.)

Take Halloween off next year! Your plan sounds awesome, and you get to use your PTO however you want. Unless you make a point of telling them what you have slated for the day, your colleagues aren’t likely to connect your day off with it being Halloween — they’ll just assume you have an appointment or family in town or any of the myriad other reasons someone might take a day off.

Unless your office is particularly buttoned-up, people aren’t likely to think your plans are childish even if they did know about them. The same goes for your birthday. (Of course, that assumes the time off doesn’t fall at a particularly crucial, all-hands-on-deck period for your team. If it did, that would change the calculus.)

‘Can I wear a Halloween costume to a job interview?’

I have an interview on Halloween. I was thinking of wearing a costume to show that I’m a fun person with team spirit. Good idea or bad idea?

Bad idea; don’t do it! There’s a high risk that you’ll come across as not recognizing professional norms or taking the interview seriously. And even if you happen to get an interviewer who appreciates fun people with team spirit, it’s not likely to be one of the primary things they’re evaluating you on. You want a prospective employer’s focus to be on why you’d be great at the job, not on what you’re wearing.

Find even more career advice from Alison Green on her website, Ask a Manager. Got a question for her? Email (and read our submission terms here.)

Ask a Boss: ‘My Office Goes Overboard for Halloween’