By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR
Holiday parties, often viewed by companies as a time to thank employees for their efforts over the year, might be seen by some employees as events to avoid. Awareness of different employee perspectives can help organizations recognize the contributions of all employees in a way that makes everyone feel welcome.
According to the web site of the nonprofit Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding in New York, “There’s no month quite like December, where multiple joyous religious holidays collide with good intentions to create a potentially toxic mix of misunderstandings and intolerance.” The center says that “the December Dilemma” is a time when decorations in workplaces and shops, office conversations, schools and advertising overwhelmingly focus on Christmas, causing those who don’t celebrate the holiday to be overlooked.
Tanenbaum estimates that 20 percent of the U.S. population, or approximately 60 million people, are not Christian. Some members of this group still enjoy the season, while some just accept it. Others are annoyed but silent, downright uncomfortable or even hostile. To address this perspective, Tanenbaum suggests that employers:
- Learn about the different holidays and understand their unique practices and significance.
- Be sensitive to those who don’t celebrate any December holidays, such as atheists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
- Seek the input of a religiously diverse group of employees to plan any office holiday celebrations.
- Pay attention to the December Dilemma. Silence doesn’t necessarily mean co-workers aren’t feeling isolated.
On the flip side, the Tanenbaum site suggests that some Christians might be distressed by what they see as the watering-down of the holiday season for the sake of “political correctness.” Tanenbaum recommends that organizations try establishing new traditions by encouraging employees to be creative and come up with inclusive practices.
Employers often wonder what kinds of decorations are recommended for the office and at parties. “Displaying a Christmas tree and garlands does not violate any federal law,” Dianna Johnston of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Office of Legal Counsel told SHRM members during a December 2007 SHRM web chat. “However, putting up symbols of other seasonal observances, at employees’ request, is good management practice,” she added.
When it comes to decorations, Johnston said, the law makes a distinction between public areas of the workplace and individual work stations not accessible to the public. “In general, in private work stations employees should be allowed to display religious symbols to the extent that employees are allowed to display other personal objects,” she said. It is up to the employer to determine the kinds of displays it will allow in public areas, but she says it’s a good idea to be inclusive.
“When determining whether and how to decorate the workplace for holidays, it is important for employers to be thoughtful and sensitive to the complexities of events with religious [or other protected basis] connotations,” Naomi C. Earp, EEOC chair, told SHRM members in an October 2006 SHRM chat.
“Employers who choose to permit holiday decorations should be as inclusive as possible and should respect the many diverse beliefs and customs held by their employees,” Earp continued. “Employers should also understand and respect the fact that some employees may choose not to display holiday decorations.”
An employer can accommodate employee religious beliefs only if it knows there is an issue, Johnston noted: “As a legal matter, however, unless you as a manager know that a display is religiously offensive, the employee has an obligation to inform management, and management can decide the appropriate response.”
It is possible to allow employees to mark their holidays as they see fit while keeping the business legally compliant and the non-observant employees comfortable, according to Dr. Joel Rudin, a professor of management in the Rohrer College of Business at Rowan University, Glassboro, N.J. For example, he suggests companies start by considering whether the holiday party is mandatory and whether there are any rewards for attending that employees won’t receive if they don’t attend. “If so, it’s a mistake to include overtly religious symbols or statements at the holiday party,” Rudin said in a press release.
Johnston suggests that employers avoid mandatory religious observances (such as a pre-dinner blessing), mandatory participation in the party itself, mandatory gift-giving and excessive use of alcohol. “Of course parties should not include sexually-inappropriate entertainment,” she added. Good practices include companywide charity drives and community service opportunities.
But Johnston said there is certainly no legal reason to avoid holiday parties altogether. She said employers should remember that not all employees will celebrate Christmas and suggested employers emphasize esprit de corps over religious celebrations.
To minimize the likelihood of religious discomfort, Johnston recommends including as many employees as possible in planning an office event. A diverse group will be better able to suggest a menu that will take into consideration a variety of dietary needs. “One way to be sensitive to these concerns is to make sure that ham is not the only main course [ham is prohibited for observant Jews and Muslims], and that there is at least one vegetarian dish,” Johnston said.
Although the burden for requesting religious accommodations rests with employees, an inclusive employer will be prepared to respond to such requests in a respectful manner.
To educate employees on what they can and cannot do around the holidays, Rudin said, employers need a policy focused specifically on religious harassment, which he said is more complex than sexual harassment. Such a policy should tell employees:
- You are never allowed to say anything negative to your employees or co-workers about their religion.
- You are never allowed to force an unwilling employee or co-worker to listen to your religious views.
- You are allowed to talk to your employees or co-workers about your religion as long as you don’t violate the first two rules and as long as they don’t complain about it.
A religious harassment policy should provide a means for employees to complain if they are offended by the religious content of a holiday party, he added.
Johnston said employers should emphasize inclusion and tolerance in any written communication related to an organization’s holiday activities. This includes the invitation itself, which should be written to take into consideration the perspective of single as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) employees.
Many companies have yet to make their holiday parties a welcoming event for gay and lesbian employees, according to Littler Mendelson, an employment and labor law firm. “It may take additional planning and consultation, but with the proper strategies businesses can support these [employees] the same way they support straight couples at work events,” said Jaffe Dickerson, a senior shareholder of the firm and co-chair of its Diversity Council, in a press release.
Dickerson offers the following recommendations to make a holiday party inclusive for GLBT employees:
- Instead of using the word “guest” on the invitation, use the term “domestic partner.” This will serve as an advance notice to all employees that it’s a gay-friendly party, allowing any uncomfortable persons to either prepare themselves or decline the invitation.
- Lead by example. For employees to believe in a company’s acceptance of gays and lesbians, senior partners and leaders should bring their own partners and/or significant others to company holiday parties.
- Incorporate, don’t isolate. Instead of making gay couples feel conspicuous and uncomfortable by seating them all at a “gay table,” seat them at a diverse table with tolerant and open guests. Having a senior manager at each table is also recommended.
- Use caution when making comments, negative or otherwise, about festive behavior. Whether it’s dancing or kissing, GLBT couples should not receive higher scrutiny for behaviors others engage in as well. If a behavior is deemed inappropriate by all standards, a member of the senior management team should request politely that the couple behave in good taste.
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is editor/manager of SHRM Online’s Diversity Focus Area.