Oct. 22, 2012 at 7:38 AM ET
Halloween has stopped disguising itself as just a kids' holiday. The National Retail Federation says Americans will spend nearly $8 billion this year on everything from scary décor to candy — and costumes for the whole family. Nearly half of adults say they plan to dress up, which means there are a lot of people either giddily anticipating or dreading going to work that day.
People in the pro-costume camp say that aside from the fun factor, there actually can be some legitimate career benefits to dressing up like a shambling zombie.
“I’m very into Halloween,” said Dana Pollati. As a digital developer for a publishing company, Pollati said only a few of the roughly 1,000 people in her building wear costumes. Pollati and her husband, who work at the same company, have started what she calls a tradition of over-the-top getups like black-and-white movie zombies and Lego versions of Jersey Shore characters.
The costumes attract a lot of attention, which Pollati said yields unexpected networking benefits. “I’ve met a lot of people that way,” she said, since colleagues and even higher-ups are eager to introduce her to workers from other departments she otherwise wouldn’t be likely to meet.
In some offices, people say they appreciate the camaraderie of dressing up as, for instance, a reality-show star. “I think for the team as a whole... it's a good culture thing,” said Corey Beale, a sales manager at software company Hubspot. He said the company’s annual costume contest is a good chance for workers to exercise their creativity in a different way.
Two years ago, Beale said he dressed as “The Situation” from the reality show Jersey Shore, with gelled hair, an oversized necklace and a dark spray tan. “It felt really strange being dressed like that on the bus” and getting strange looks from other commuters, he said. “I felt really awkward.”
Beale said his trip into work was probably less awkward than that of a (male) colleague who came into work dressed as Snooki, with a trucker hat and voluminous black wig, plus a fat suit that incorporated a bikini.
While an employee wearing a fat suit in drag may all be in good fun at one office, it can be a real-life horror story for human resources at another, said Amy N. Letke, founder and CEO of consulting company Integrity HR.
“It’s always concerning because we live in a time when every employer has to be thinking about a respectful workplace,” she said. “It gets out of hand so fast.” One person’s idea of funny may be offensive to their colleague in the next cubicle, especially if the costume touches on race, religion or politics.
There's also the minefield of revealing costumes. Letke said that even in a festive atmosphere, people need to keep factors like hemlines and necklines in mind. “The sexy costumes are the things that just can create huge problems” because an eyebrow-raising Catwoman outfit can torpedo the wearer's professional credibility.
“These things don’t just last for one day,” she said. “The impression can last for a long time.”
Costumes that elicit an "oh-no-they-didn't" moment from co-workers aren't limited to the overly risqué numbers, either. Tilmon Brown, a former imaging company salesperson, remembers a Halloween when a co-worker came dressed as a feminine hygiene product.
“He put on a pair of gray long johns and then he took a cardboard tube and cut arms in it ...and then he took the top and filled the top with cotton and had a string hanging out the back,” Brown said. "There was no doubt as to what he was," especially since the colleague painted “Tampax” on the cardboard.
“I think he thought everybody thought it would be hilarious ...After he walked in, he realized it wasn't a good idea but at that point he was too far in,” Brown said. The man was so sure his costume would be a hit that he didn’t bring a change of clothes, so after a few hours of fielding complaints from offended employees, management sent him home to change.
“A company opens themselves up for whatever when they have a company-sponsored costume event unless you lay down some rules,” Brown said.
If you don't tell them what the rules are, they’re never going to know," Letke said.
Trevor Villet, creative director at marketing company PlanIt, is one example of a person who took his employer's permissive attitude toward costumes to the extreme.
"Two years ago, I was a turd," he said. "I was head to toe, complete with corn — it was actually styrofoam — and pipe cleaner flies."
Villet, who had come in a relatively run-of-the-mill costume as the singer George Michael the previous year, estimated it took him about a week to assemble his gross-out creation, which involved long underwear, brown fabric dye and a lot of brown fleece.
His managers didn't reprimand him, Villet said, but the response from colleagues and other professionals who also had offices in the building was another story.
"I bought one of these fart machines and I hid it in the fabric, and just carried it with me," In the morning, Villet rode what he described as a "packed" elevator to his office, accompanied by a woman who worked with him. "I sort of nonchalantly hit the button and let it go,” embarrassing the colleague who had to exit the elevator with him. "I love putting people in awkward situations," he said.
A stunt like Villet's would probably be scarier than any ghost or ghoul to someone like Mary Baier, a former manager at at community bank who now has her own financial services practice. “My whole thing on the Halloween dressing up was that it was not professional,” she said. As one of the few outliers in a heavily pro-costume workplace, Baier said many of her co-workers called her a “nerd” and teased her.
Going to the boss wasn’t an option, either. “My department head would say, ‘Get with it, we need to let our customers see our hair let down,' ” she said. “I guess I was called a party pooper.”
Things got so bad, Baier said, that she resorted to taking vacation days on Halloween just to avoid the needling. “I hated it so much.”
Letke said it hurts morale when a worker feels implicitly or explicitly mandated to wear a costume against their wishes. “Peer pressure is so intense,” Letke said. “Some people may be very self-conscious about what kind of costume they wear because it has a lasting impact."
Do you wear a costume to work on Halloween? Tell us about it on Facebook.