How to avoid embarrassing yourself and offending coworkers at an office Halloween party

Go for spooky, not shocking, at your Halloween office party.

Go for spooky, not shocking, at your Halloween office party.  (Pilin_Petunyia)

When it comes to Halloween party attire, witches, ghosts, goblins and princesses just don’t seem to cut it these days.

People want to dress as their favorite celebrity, make a pun out of a controversial news story or even push some buttons when it comes to spoofing prominent political figures.

But when does being witty go too far?

Michelle Lee Flores, a labor and employment attorney based in Los Angeles, has been advising small businesses and international corporations for over 20 years on how to handle everything from workplace discrimination cases, sexual harassment, overtime wage violations and wrongful termination. But she says she's also passionate about creating work places that make people happy. The attorney now creates workplace policies and procedural manuals to help companies manage and prevent potentially contentious situations at corporate events.

Office Halloween parties may not be as ubiquitous as Christmas parties but when people choose to dress up at work, employee reactions can range from amused to angry to downright aggravated.

“Sometimes people just don’t put their thinking cap on when it comes to costumes,” Lee Flores tells “They’ll do inappropriate double-entendres that may seem clever outside the workplace, they may dress up as a person of another race or they might be acting in a stereotypical manner.”

Lee Flores says she is not aware of any lawsuits resulting from a poorly chosen Halloween costume at a work party but, over the years, she has helped guide several companies through complaints about party attire that led to internal investigations. 

As more colleges introduce “safe spaces” and people are harangued for expressing politically incorrect opinions, it might seem unfortunate that Halloween—the one day of the year when people are supposedly given free reign to be anyone (or anything)—has become a hot button issue. Have we become too sensitive as a society? Do we really need lawyers to tell us what to do when it comes to the time honored tradition of dressing up before tearing into a fun size Snickers?


When it comes to dressing up in front of coworkers, Lee Flores says it’s paramount that guidelines are clear and bosses must set the tone.

“It might seem ridiculous that we’re even having this convo, but the way the world is today, you’d be shocked at what people keep doing time and time again.”

What may seem like common sense to one person, won’t even register on another’s radar. Here are just a few of Lee Flores’ top tips to avoid the wrath of your coworkers-- or a gentle slap on the wrist from human resources.

Wear something appropriate for a kid’s party, not a raunchy late night affair.

“[Characters from] popular shows and movies like “Star Wars,” or classic figures like Audrey Hepburn are always a great bet. Most Disney characters are great, too. Timely viral trends can be fun so I think people could do something like Pokemon GO.”

Lee Flores also advises men and women to stay away from anything overtly sexual or outfits that show a lot of skin. If it’s way outside the realm of your normal office attire, it’s probably not appropriate.

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Salacious news is fun but stay away from religion and politics.

“If it’s a controversial news story, just don’t do it,” says Lee Flores. “There’s always a mask of the current president or someone running for office out there. This election has been pretty contentious so I would recommend staying away from the two candidates.”

A fake Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton strolling around the office may seem like harmless fun, but people’s political beliefs may spark some unwanted arguments around the water cooler, says Lee Flores.

Spoofing social issues like racial injustice, LGBT rights and war conflicts should also be crossed off the list.

Whether it’s a Bruce Jenner-Caitlyn crossdresser duo costume or a gagged Kim Kardashian getup, costume companies keep pushing the boundaries of questionable taste when it comes to premade getups. These items might be “on trend” and get a few laughs after hours but ultimately, Lee Flores doesn’t think they’re appropriate.

“A couple of years ago, we saw various sports stars involved in incidents of domestic violence. Men would dress as athletes and their female partner would have a black eye. That, to me, is just never funny.”

Employers should be direct when laying out the rules for appropriate party attire.

Many offices don’t have official Halloween parties but some fun-loving desk mates may want to show off their creative side on Oct. 31. Festive parties can be a great way to boost office morale and provide a few chuckles, Lee Flores says some employers have a hard time drafting a straightforward policy on what’s okay and what’s considered out of line. Many just wait and deal with issues on a case by case basis—but then the damage may already be done.

“Sometimes employees just say ‘Hey, we want to have to some Halloween fun,’ so it’s not always an official gathering and by the time the boss sees a costume, he or she may be reluctant to say anything for fear of coming off as uncool or too harsh.”

Lee Flores recommends bosses take the time to draft a quick note to all potential office revelers and advise anyone with an issue to go to human resources. 

If a problem arises, let workers know they have a voice.

“In the event that a costume complaint arises, a company has a tremendous opportunity to make it better quickly…or far worse,” says Lee Flores. 

“Say a white person dressed as the convenience store clerk from ‘The Simpsons’ and was speaking in an Indian accent all day. A fellow coworker goes to HR and says she feels uncomfortable. If that person is quickly dismissed...that employee is likely to feel even angrier and who knows what could happen.”

However, if a human resource advocate acknowledges the issue and suggests coming up with a solution together, the offended employee is likely to feel as if he or she has a real influence on office culture and that their concerns are being taken seriously.

"The HR manager should ask the employee who filed a complaint “What would you like to happen?” so they can contribute to resolving the issue.”

Most responses, say Flores, are pretty benign, “90 percent of the time, all they want is to make sure it doesn’t happen again— many don’t even want an apology from the person themselves. They prefer to avoid any type of face-to-face confrontation and protect their anonymity.”

Avoid perpetual embarrassment in the age of social media.

Office party shenanigans of yesteryear may have embarrassed a colleague for a day or two but those crazy kegstand memories are soon forgotten without visual evidence. Enter the smartphone—and a plethora of social media apps that may catapult one harmless video or picture into viral fame forever. Just ask Ken Bone.  Embarrassing moments-- and potentially offensive costumes-- can instantly be viewed by millions.

Lee Flores says it’s all part of a sad but true modern reality. “Because of all the various social media platforms, your one mess-up could end up as global news. You may be a good person, but whoops, made a mistake… and we all know how cruel people on the Internet can be.”

But, says the attorney, there is a silver lining in being made aware about what presses people’s buttons.

“Every year you see one or two celebrities flubbing up with their costumes and everyone can see it immediately because there are so many media outlets. It might be insensitive but at least it provides a good education for those who may not be aware of why something is considered taboo in the first place.”

A good rule of thumb when it comes to social media and office parties is to treat it like any other day at work.

“You wouldn’t just run up to a coworker sitting at his desk, minding his own business and snap close-ups his face. If someone has a cool costume, just ask before clicking away. And if you happen to be getting your picture taken, be aware of how and where it may be seen.” 

Still not sure if your outfit is okay?

“If you’re trying to be witty, funny, or even a little edgy with a costume, sit back and get a second opinion from a family member or political correct friend,” says Lee Flores. “Most people really aren’t trying to be insensitive at all but sometimes it takes another voice to point out a potential issue.”