Paman Singh: Avoid a workplace fright-fest

Over the last few years, Halloween has evolved into one of the scariest times of the year, at least for employers.

Paman Singh, legal adviser at Law at Work

Of course, it can also be a very useful way to build team spirit and to foster a good working environment, so let’s look at how you can avoid a cauldron-full of catastrophe.

If you decide to allow a relaxed dress code, it’d be wise to send a reminder that appropriate attire is still expected – skimpy, revealing costumes can lead to sexual harassment cases.

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Surely it’s obvious, but, to avoid a royal ruckus, it might be best to remind employees that dressing as a Nazi is a no-no.

Dressing as a suicide bomber is also not to be encouraged, as one Manchester United player found out last year when his management company had to issue an apology following an ill-judged party outfit.

Staff also should not dress up as someone from a different race or religion – as they are not really dressing up as someone from another race or religion; what they’re doing is dressing up as a potentially incredibly offensive stereotype. A few years ago the department of Homeland Security had to launch an internal investigation after an employee turned up to a party in a costume comprising of dreadlocks, dark make-up and prison striped clothing. Take a moment, indulge in a facepalm. Here’s a key tip; you may believe that it’s good, clean fun but if you think your costume might be considered racist, it probably is.

A work party is still work. As such, employees need to remember that fighting, sexual innuendo, swearing or just generally being an oaf is not acceptable. One employer found out the hard way after having to pay compensation to an employee who came to an office party dressed as a doctor. Whilst at the party, she was harassed by her supervisor who unbuckled his trousers and informed him that it hurt there. Fair to say, it probably hurt his wallet too.

Many employers host parties in a bar or a restaurant, but staff should note that while the event is off-site they’d be wise to adopt the same composure as they do on work premises. In a famous case a drunken partying employee decided that the queue for the toilets was too long, so relieved himself – on the boss’s car.

Employees also need to be aware of pranks that could be perceived as bullying, for instance a recent case where an airport worker was dismissed after she put an image of a witch as a screensaver on the computer of a colleague who had unfriended her on Facebook.

It’s wise for employers to keep in mind that Halloween for some is a sacred holiday, for example for Pagans and some Christian sects. Employers should treat all religions, mainstream or not, as equal as the Equality Act doesn’t state the belief has to be a major religion to be protected. A recent example was in 2013 where an employee who was a Pagan witch won damages for unfair dismissal after she was sacked after switching her shift to celebrate Halloween.

Employers should also respect the right of employees to treat Halloween as a day for sombre reflection or not to participate at all, for Jehovah’s Witnesses and some Evangelical Christians it can be a festival taking part in false worship.

There is no magic spell for avoiding workplace headaches, but employers can avoid getting a good scare this Halloween with an ounce of planning and a dash of good sense.

Paman Singh is a legal adviser at Law at Work, which has offices in Edinburgh and Glasgow