Work

Nightmare on Dilbert’s Street

How to avoid a Halloween horror show at your office party.

Photo illustration of a fairy working in a cubicle.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and XiXinXing/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

Celebrating Halloween at work seems like it should be festive—a chance for employees to have some fun, let loose a little, and bond over candy and costumes. And yet, people being people, Halloween at the office can sometimes go terribly wrong.

For starters, the grisly accessories of the holiday aren’t always work-friendly, as this person who wrote to me vividly illustrates:

My previous employer banned costumes after a Halloween fiasco. One department went way over the top with gory, ghoulish costumes with lots of blood. They decorated their whole department with blood splatters. It was so real and graphic that people were on the verge of gagging.

Result-> no more Halloween. No candy, no treats, no orange socks or silly hats.

Keeping the decorations PG can also help avoid scenarios like this one, where an employee’s boss gets more into the holiday spirit than she’d prefer:

I’ve worked six years for a man who goes way over the top with Halloween. Our office becomes a haunted dungeon with spooky lighting, a disturbing soundtrack, gothic pictures and dust covers, and toys that use sensors to jump out at people and make loud noises. For reasons I don’t understand, my boss loves this.

I hate it. I have PTSD from a bad childhood and the whole thing increases my anxiety. Especially the soundtrack can make me spin out. If I didn’t have an office with a door, I wouldn’t be able to work here.

My boss is also a workaholic who seems to have been spinning out the last few years, but has been better lately. Last year he didn’t do the Halloween decor because he was too busy. I hoped he had realized not everyone likes it and wouldn’t do it again. But no … as I write, the decorations and lighting are going up. It used to be the whole month, at least now it’s only one and a half weeks. Meanwhile, people are waiting for his input on time-sensitive matters.

Even in offices that don’t go over the top with decor, costumes can open the door to a host of problems, like employees who show up in overly sexualized costumes (think naughty nurses or flashers—not the way you want to see your co-workers) or employees who don’t seem to realize their costumes are downright racist:

I’ve been at my current position for about nine months, and I just found out that we are having an office Halloween party next month where we are encouraged to come to work in costume for the day. … Apparently, people in my office really get into the spirit and put together some really creative costumes. I’m pretty excited too because Halloween is one of my favorite holidays.

I heard that some people are planning on wearing costumes like “Indian” (American Indian), geisha, gypsy, and that someone did blackface last year for his “basketball star” costume. … I am African American and would be pretty offended if someone expected me to praise their costume if it included blackface, but I’m not sure how to express that, or bring it to everyone’s attention, or even who I should tell. … Is it OK to tell a co-worker discreetly on Halloween that their costume is racist?

Other times, people show up in costumes that aren’t entirely compatible with the work they’re there to do:

My former workplace, a medical specialty clinic, was unusually into Halloween–lots of candy, an annoying pumpkin-carving contest, awards for best costume, the whole deal. Usually the front-desk folks and some behind-the-scenes staff would come in costume. Most of the staff serving patients kept it low key (think black cat ears on a headband) or didn’t dress up at all. The exception was a female physician who always went over the top. One year she was a sexy bridezilla and another year a geisha; she must’ve spent hours on her makeup. (Maybe she was trying to scare us with her appalling lack of judgment!) I never knew how her patients reacted, but I could not imagine having an appointment and trying to discuss my medical symptoms with…Bridezilla.

There’s no reason offices shouldn’t say yes to pumpkins, candy, and fake cobwebs—by all means, bring it on! But exercising a bit of judgment can go a long way. And if you’re in an office where people have conflicting opinions about how to celebrate, it’s OK to take a hard line, lest you end up where this office did:

For reasons which I dare not know, there is a small contingent of people in my department who all have strong personalities, strong opinions, and no chill. Everyone hates each other, but they all must be on the various party planning committees. Our fall potluck was simultaneously “sports jersey,” “Halloween,” and “Richard Nixon”–themed because I accidentally ended up in charge and did not have the energy to veto anything.