Celebrating the Holidays and Diversity in the Workplace

By Susan Milligan Dec 2, 2015
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The winter holidays are a great opportunity for employees to bond over social events and sugar cookies, but they can also be a source of conflict for HR managers, who must make sure the season doesn’t lead to hurt feelings, discomfort or worse—a charge of religious discrimination.

It’s not advisable—and virtually impossible—to ask workers to keep their religious holiday observances completely separate from work. The key, employment lawyers and workplace experts say, is to make sure no one feels excluded or forced to participate in workplace festivities. Diversity, whether it involves religion or the gender of the partner someone brings to a workplace party, should be celebrated along with the holidays so that everyone feels welcome, experts advise.

That extends to these areas of potential conflict:

Days off. Title VII of the Civil Right Act of 1964 says employers can’t discriminate based on religion, and must “reasonably accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious practices” unless it will cause the employer an “undue hardship.” That means people can’t be fired because their religion forbids them from working on the Sabbath, but it also means companies aren’t required to let the entire staff take off the entire week of Christmas. “Some [employers] give major Christian and Jewish holidays off and are moving to include major Muslim holidays as well. Others still give off just Christmas but have floating holidays which employees can use for other religious holidays,” said Hope B. Eastman, principal with Paley Rothman in Bethesda, Md., and co-chair of the firm’s employment law group.

Office décor. Common sense is the rule when it comes to decorations put up by management and holiday items brought in by workers. A bunch of snowflakes or garlands on the walls, for example, is perfectly OK, but a manger scene is such a religious symbol that it could offend non-Christian workers, lawyers and experts say. Personal decorations are fine “as long as the decorations are kept to a minimum and are not in any way treading on the rights” of others—and that includes ensuring that decorations don’t create an unnavigable workspace, said Natalie Holder, an employment lawyer and founder and CEO of Quest

Diversity, a Greenwich, Conn.–based firm that promotes diversity in the workplace. “If they put an 8-foot spruce in their cubicle, that would be a hardship,” she said.

Holiday parties. Companies may have scrimped on workplace perks during the recession, but “as the economy has steadily improved, workplace holiday parties have made a comeback,” said Mike Baize, manager of HR services at Insperity, a Houston, Texas-based HR services provider. A Society for Human Resource Management poll found that 65 percent of HR professionals said their organizations will have a 2015 end-of-year/holiday party open to all employees.

Workers have sued over religious discrimination during the holidays. For instance, an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department sued because he was required, he said, to attend a Christmas celebration and training session at a Christian church. The officer is a Wiccan.

“You have to be sensitive to people’s religions,” said Louise Ann Fernandez, a labor and employment lawyer with the California-based firm Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell.

That includes:

--Making any party nondenominational, and including recognition of all kinds of holidays associated with December, Holder said.

--Making attendance at all holiday events voluntary. People whose religions have holidays and observances in months other than December (such as the fall for the Hindu celebration of Diwali; or the Muslim celebration of Ramadan, which is celebrated in different months, depending on the year) may not want to attend a Christian season celebration. In addition, some Muslims and members of other religions not only refrain from alcohol but can be offended by its very presence, and so may not want to attend a party where alcohol is served, Holder noted.

--Putting people of different religions on the party-planning committee. And don’t schedule the event at a time (such as Friday night) that might conflict with someone’s religious observances.

--Making the season about more than traditional cutout cookies and grab-bag gifts. At Spredfast, a social media management platform based in Austin, Texas, all kinds of occasions are celebrated, from birthdays to Cinco de Mayo to “Hackweek,” during which employees compete to come up with new products. In December, said Sam Baber, the company’s director of talent and development, Spredfast goes whole-hog: It hosts 12 days of holiday movies, a traditional Hanukkah meal and a “very intense game” of White Elephant. A charity committee, called #BeNiceAndSocial, organizes ways for employees to give back each holiday season. This year, Spredfast has planned a holiday gift drive where teams can sign up to receive $300 from Spredfast to purchase gifts for nonprofit organizations or charities of their choosing.

Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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