HR Guide: Halloween Costumes to Avoid at the Office

Tyler S. Hatcher
6 Oct

Halloween is the one time each year when everyone gets to become someone (or something) new. If your office celebrates the holiday like millions of others across America, employees likely put on costumes to become something scary, silly, or funny to carry on a century-long tradition of tricks and treats. However your workplace chooses to mark Halloween, there are some costumes that aren’t appropriate for work. 

While most professionals know to avoid revealing or inappropriate costumes, there is another category of costumes that should become off-limits for all professional events. Some Halloween costumes take inspiration from various cultures across the world. While these costumes are typically well-meaning, they can contribute to harmful stereotypes and what is called cultural appropriation.

This quick HR guide will break down the do’s and don’t’s of Halloween costumes and why cultural appropriation has no place in a diverse and inclusive workplace. 

What is Cultural Appropriation? Why Does It Matter?

Cultural appropriation, simply put, is the inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, and beliefs of one society by another, more dominant people or society. A simple example of cultural appropriation is the proliferation of Native American “costumes” by white Americans. 

Historically, indigenous people within American society have been displaced, forcibly relocated, and discriminated against at a federal level. The iconic “feathered headdress” that is a staple of many of Halloween costumes is actually called a war bonnet by Native American Plains tribes, and they are items of great social and spiritual importance. Earning a war bonnet meant earning it a feather at a time through selfless acts of courage and honor. To earn enough feathers to create an entire war bonnet marks an extremely respected and honored member of the community. It becomes suddenly understandable with this context why a Native American staff member might object to such an important piece of traditional regalia being worn by someone who doesn’t understand its significance. 

The campaign My Culture is Not a Costume seeks to shed light on the harmful impact cultural appropriation has on cultural, religious, and ethnic minorities. Seeing your culture turned into a costume for the sake of a joke can be hurtful to your employees, even if that was not the wearer’s intention. To promote a diverse and inclusive culture, consider encouraging your employees to avoid the following costume mistakes. 

Stereotypes are Always Harmful

One of the reasons these costumes aren’t appropriate for work is because they often stereotype entire religious, cultures, and peoples. This gross oversimplification can be offensive to members of the community and make employees feel unwelcome or uncomfortable. To determine if a costume might perpetuate a harmful stereotype, consider the following:

  • Does the costume represent a group of people who really exist? 
  • Does the costume take from another people, culture, or religion that is not the wearer’s own? 
  • Does the costume rely on generalizations about a people or culture? 

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, it would be a good idea to advise the employee in question to find a different costume. 

Creating a Diverse and Inclusive Environment

Part of diversity and inclusion initiatives involves creating a welcoming environment for diverse talent. Racist, insensitive costumes create a hostile work environment for members of these groups. They can make employees uncomfortable and feel as though they are not truly welcomed among their colleagues. If your business wants to be hospitable to BIPOC, women, and LGBTQ+ employees, consider putting a company-wide moratorium on all culturally appropriative Halloween costumes. 

This does nothing but create an atmosphere of mutual respect and fun. Alternatives to Japanese geishas, Native American warriors, and fortune-telling Roma costumes are everywhere! Superheroes, ghouls and ghosts, movie monsters, TV and film characters, animals, and more are all costumes that capture the spirit of Halloween without being offensive.

Creating a company culture that makes room for everyone, regardless of race, religion, gender identity, or ethnicity, is a crucial step in any business. An inclusive environment allows everyone to contribute and drive your organization towards further success. 

Want to learn more about the importance of workplace diversity? Download our whitepaper on the impact D&I can have on your employer brand.

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