As Halloween approaches I am reminded of the famous Dunder-Mifflin Paper company and how they gracefully celebrate the Halloween holiday every year on the NBC hit show, with the likes of Michael Scott, Dwight Schrute and Andy Bernard. When you think of these characters you also think of one giant liability claim as well don’t you?
According to consumer studies, behind Christmas, Americans spend more money on Halloween than any other holiday. Such interest for Halloween is extends into the workplace, as more than one-third of employers offer Halloween celebrations at work, with just as many co-workers coming dressed for the occasion. Such is the case in our Northern Kentucky office in Crestview Hills.
In Lexington we have our annual Chili Cook-off , where the men bring in their own chili recipes and treat the ladies, who later vote for their favorite. As a disappointed loser for the past four years, I have come to the conclusion that I am just going to have to step up my game this year to win this prestigious award, or I may have to resort to spiking a couple of chili crock-pots with vinegar.
By all accounts, management and human resource professionals and, yes, even Michael Scott from “The Office” will tell you that having a Halloween celebration provides many important benefits. It reduces office stress and tension, promotes teambuilding and solidarity, projects and forms a positive company culture, nurtures creativity, tears down inner office walls, and can be a wonderful breath of fresh air.
Many of us enjoy celebrating Halloween by dressing up in a costume and attending Halloween-themed parties, but these activities can raise concerns when they occur in the workplace. But like the good old annual company Christmas party, such benefits do not come without risks and regrets. Many people see Halloween as an excuse to engage in insensitive and careless behavior, and employers need to safeguard against that.
Therefore, before consenting to a Halloween-themed party, remember to consider all the issues related to inappropriate dress, unsuitable behavior, religious beliefs, employee safety, as well as the company image. Then also make sure you have the proper employment practices liability insurance (EPLI) coverages, to guard against any claims.
“EPLI” is liability insurance that covers certain employment-related claims made by employees. For example, if a manager or employee harasses or discriminates against another employee (or is alleged to have done so), EPLI will provide a defense and possibly claim payment on behalf of the business. In today’s world this is also critical coverage to protect the business owner from meritless claims brought by disgruntled employees. Even though most business owners strive to be fair and non-discriminatory, old habits die hard, age and gender gaps lead to miscommunication, and EPLI coverage can serve as a last line of defense against employment claims.
To protect against such exposure, consider these factors:
Religion: In many cultures and religious viewpoints, many view celebrating Halloween as a form of worship. Therefore some may request time off as a religious accommodation and, if so, you as company must be prepared for that.
Diversity: A diverse workplace is a valuable asset that can provide a company a competitive edge. However employers who value diversity must acknowledge that these varying backgrounds, viewpoints, beliefs, customs, ethnicities, cultures and traditions that contribute to such diversity will increase the probability that some employees may find costumes and celebrations distasteful and offensive. Do not pressure employees to participate. If an employee advises you that he or she wishes to abstain from the Halloween celebration, respect that decision.
Inappropriate Costumes: Costumes can raise a host of challenges for employers trying to maintain a professional and discrimination-free workplace. In any office there is always an employee or two who will push the boundaries to the point of violating the company’s dress code and may even be politically incorrect for the office environment. It is always suggested that you deal with employees individually, and not penalize the entire office for one employee’s inability to make good decisions. If costumes are not allowed, you should advise employees in advance of Halloween. If you do allow costumes be sure to forbid costumes that are replicate stereotypical images of people who are members of a protected class and set a Halloween dress code policy, which goes beyond the company’s normal workplace dress code.
Harassment:Some employees may see Halloween as an opportunity to engage in practical jokes, or send and receive emails with menacing, threatening or explicit content. Most companies have email and/or Internet policies that contemplate any situations that might arise, but it is still sensible and suggested to reinforce your company’s harassment policy and email policy just prior to Halloween.
Workplace Violence Concerns: With the society in which we live in today, employers should consider setting certain limits on masks and costumes; and prohibit toy or real weapons as costume props.
Set Safety Guidelines: Each workplace has its own set of unique risk exposures and hazards. Therefore be mindful of loose clothing from costumes around any moving parts or machinery. Masks can also obscure an employee’s field of vision which could prove to be hazardous. Costumes not flame resistant should be prohibited in certain work settings with ignition sources. Employees should be reminded that safety rules must be observed at all times and that any costume that could create a hazard are not permitted.
Alcohol Consumption: As with any office party or celebration, alcohol consumption can also be a significant safety and liability concern. If hosting a party, either avoid providing alcohol altogether or strictly control and monitor distribution and consumption.
Children in the workplace: Some employers have Halloween celebrations that allow employees to bring their children into the workplace. So it’s important to determine if their children will be troublesome to your workplace, and what the potential safety exposures are.
Considering these challenges associated with Halloween costumes and parties, employers should be cautious and address these concerns before authorizing them. Regarding potential liability concerns, your insurance agent should be consulted to determine if you have the necessary EPLI coverages with the necessary limits of liability. EPLI policies and coverage is less standardized than other forms of coverage. Sometimes EPLI coverage is bundled in a business owner’s policy or as a part of other liability insurance. While other times it may need to be purchased as a separate coverage or endorsement.
Don’t let such exposures spook you this Halloween and follow this advice to avoid hearing someone someday tell you…. “trick or treat, smell my feet, me and my attorney aren’t going to be discreet.”
Be Safe My Friends.
Keven Moore is director of Risk Management Services for Roeding Insurance (www.roedinginsurance.com). He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.