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1025homespunweb.jpgBy Amy Hoak, MarketWatch

RISMEDIA, Oct. 24, 2007-(MarketWatch)-Eastwick Communications throws a wicked Halloween event. The public-relations firm hosts an annual Black and Orange Bash, a party of socializing and networking for its staff and clients. There’s usually musical entertainment and novelties such as fortune tellers or temporary-tattoo artists; this year, an artist will be drawing caricatures, said Linda Clarke, executive vice president for the firm, based in the San Francisco Bay area.

Yet you’re not going to find the 200 attendees mingling in creative Halloween costumes, Clarke said. The party attire is simple and direct: Wear orange and black.

“You never know what you’re going to get,” Clarke said, referring to the creative — and sometimes office-inappropriate — costumes that adults might wear. Plus, she said, making a costume mandatory might make some people uncomfortable and turn the invite down.

“It’s a social event, but it’s a business function,” she said. If the point is to mingle with clients and co-workers “sometimes that’s hard to do if hiding behind a mask.”

But for employees like Ryan Lynch, who works at Young & Rubicam, an advertising agency in New York, a costume can be “the ultimate conversation starter.” Last year, when he dressed up at work as a skier from the ’70s — complete with an era-appropriate mustache — he found it became an easy way to launch into a chat with someone he might otherwise pass in the hallway.

To dress or not to dress: It’s a point worth considering as Halloween office events — including costume contests — creep up on the break-room calendar.

While some people can’t resist the prospect of wearing a costume while performing daily work tasks, others would rather dress for business as usual. And even though that young-at-heart employee might see it as the perfect time to express creativity through an elaborate get-up, it’s best to fully consider whether the witty garb is innocuous enough to make every co-worker smile or if some could deem it offensive.

If the office party planning committee encourages employees to get into the Halloween spirit with a costume, the choice is up to the individual. Just remember this: Scheduled fun at the office is “professional fun, which is different than when you’re out of the office,” said Barbara Pachter, author of the book “New Rules @ Work: 79 Etiquette Tips, Tools, and Techniques to Get Ahead and Stay Ahead.”

Pachter told the story of a pharmaceutical sales representative who dressed up as the Grim Reaper on Halloween — and proceeded to walk through the intensive care unit of a hospital. It’s a horrifying tale she heard from an audience member at one of her business etiquette seminars.

It’s also proof that what’s funny to one person doesn’t necessarily amuse the whole crowd.

“If you do dress up, realize that it’s your image, it’s your reputation that people are going to be talking about the next day,” she said.

Avoid the sexy nurse

According to research from the National Retail Federation, 33.8% of adults plan on dressing in costume for Halloween this year. And there’s a good chance many of them will be dressing up in the office: A survey in 2005 found that almost one-third of workers planned to wear a costume to work that year.

This year’s popular choices for adult costumes include traditional Halloween favorites such as witches, pirates, vampires, cats and princesses, according to NRF. Also high on the list: characters from “Star Wars,” doctors and athletes.

The market for adult costumes has grown considerably over the past years, and now major costume companies have adult lines, said Larry Kirchner, chairman of a group whose members also do well this season — the Haunted House Association. An adult costume with all the accessories usually costs three to five times more than the variety sized for junior, he added.

One subset of adult costumes that has grown greatly in popularity is the provocative variety that allows adults to have fun with “sexy doctor” or “sexy nurse” costumes, for example, Kirchner said. It should be obvious, but maybe it’s worth saying anyway: While those costumes may be fun for a night out, don’t take them to the office.

In fact, employers will probably want to lay down the ground rules beforehand when it comes to costumes, said Michael D. Karpeles, head of the labor and employment group at Goldberg Kohn, a Chicago-based law firm.

“It’s OK to allow people to dress up, but I think that companies should let their employees know that certain types of costumes are not appropriate — if they’re especially revealing, for example,” he said.
Also shy away from disturbing, horror costumes or ones with religious themes that might rub co-workers the wrong way. And remember, office policies such as those regarding sexual harassment don’t take a holiday at work events.

If someone has a costume … a He-Man costume or Superman costume, and wants to demonstrate his super powers for certain women — it doesn’t take much imagination to see where things could lead,” Karpeles said.

Fun factories

The encouragement of Halloween costumes in the office fits into an overall trend of companies wanting their workplaces to feel fun and comfortable, said John Challenger, CEO of the outplacement consultancy firm Challenger Gray & Christmas.

“Coming out of the dot-com era, more companies want to have more fun,” Challenger said. Employees have shorter stays with their companies, too, and human resources departments often look to parties as a way for workers to get to know each other earlier on, he said.

Take Tremor Media, a rapidly growing video advertising agency in New York. CEO Jason Glickman said that because the company has four times as many employees as it did a year ago, not everyone knows each other as well as when the company got its start. A costume party can create an environment for people to mingle and get to know each other, he said.

Still, ground rules are set before the day arrives, he said. Glickman’s advice: Don’t wear anything you’d feel uncomfortable wearing around your mother or grandmother.

For those concerned about being the only one dressing up, it is probably wise to do some scouting around beforehand to see how others plan on participating, Pachter said. That, or have a change of everyday clothes — just in case.

“You don’t want to be the only one to dress up,” she said. “But not dressing up is the reverse,” she added, and could suggest to others that you’re not a team player.

Also, getting more than one co-worker to go in on a group costume can get a lot of laughs — and knowing that you won’t be the only one in costume can help in the confidence department, Lynch said. “There is strength in numbers,” he added.

Other tips for celebrating Halloween in the office: Follow your company’s policy on whether it’s OK to decorate and/or send Halloween cards, Pachter said. If there’s alcohol at the party, don’t overindulge, or take the risk of saying something that will come back to haunt you. And before inviting the kids in to show off their costumes, make sure you get company approval — no matter how cute they look.

Amy Hoak is a MarketWatch reporter based in Chicago.