Diversity Efforts Can Fall Short Around Holidays

By Kathy Gurchiek Oct 29, 2008

Observing religious-based holidays is becoming increasingly complicated for U.S. employers as the American workplace grows more diverse, according to a new survey from Novations Group.

One in 10 employees has felt excluded during holiday celebrations at work, the global consulting organization found in a national telephone survey of 534 employers’ workers conducted in September 2008.

“Each year the holidays become a more complicated challenge for U.S. employers,” Novations senior vice president Dawn Frazier-Bohnert said in a press release. “Of course, all organizations want to be inclusive, but it appears that their efforts may fall short at holiday time.”

It used to be that by “adding a Hanukkah Menorah to the holiday decorations” an employer could achieve holiday diversity, she observed.

“But today employers have to take into account an ever increasing variety of religious beliefs and practices among their employees.

Typically during the last quarter of the year, when the issue of holidays in the workplace comes up, thoughts turn to Christmas. As the workplace becomes more diverse, however, it likely is populated with people of other faiths, or no faith.

Christmas, the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, the African-American holiday Kwanzaa, and occasionally the Islamic Ramadan occur in December, often within weeks of each other, the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding points out on its web site.

“Each of these holidays is very different in their practices and significance,” the center says. “Some organizations try to accommodate all four of these holidays, but doing this takes consideration as well.

“There is example after example,” it notes, “where companies put a Hanukkah menorah in one corner and a Kwanzaa display in another and then adorn the majority of the office with Christmas decorations.”

The challenge is “how do you have an enthused workforce and be faith-friendly and faith-neutral and not violate any laws,” Cindy Wigglesworth, founder and president of Texas-based Conscious Pursuits, told SHRM Online in a phone interview.

One of HR’s purposes, she said, is “creating an empowered, enthusiastic workforce.”

“Religious holidays may not have a lot to do with a competent workforce” but they do contribute to an enthusiastic workforce because “religion is very important to a lot of people,” she observed.

Typically, though, HR tends “to focus on how to stay out of trouble rather than capitalize on the enthusiasm of the workforce as it pertains to stuff that matters to them,” such as their faith or religion, the former HR professional said.

Her background includes 20 years in HR management for ExxonMobil Corp., performing traditional areas of HR, including organizational design, executive coaching and performance improvement, and global training strategy.

“We’d much rather bring your child to work than bring your faith to work. We have not had a safe way to talk about faith. We can talk about sex, we can talk about politics but we still can’t talk about religion,” Wigglesworth said.

“I think we need a new goal; the old goal was not getting sued. I’d like to add another goal: to embrace what matters to people.”

When it comes to religion- or faith-based holidays, start by considering your workplace demographics, she advised.

“Yes, you should have appropriate honoring of the culture you are embedded in. I would honor it differently in India than I would if I were in the United States,” Wigglesworth said.

She suggested several ways of approaching the dilemma over holiday observance.

One is having no official recognition of the holidays, including no holiday-related decorations in the lobby or public spaces but allowing employees to decorate their personal work area “as long as a reasonable person would not consider it offensive.”

There is the totally secular approach, similar to what’s found at shopping malls, with no mention of the religious aspect of the associated holiday. This, though, “loses some of the juice” that stirs people about their personal faith, Wigglesworth said.

A third approach is to use the holidays as an educational opportunity, as some public schools do, she said. She cited the Paths of Faith Dinner that the city of Houston hosts for its residents as an example.

“As long as you were reasonably even-handed about it, I think it’s a great opportunity for diversity training. Do the [faiths or religions] for the community you are embedded in,” she said.

And, she reminded in a follow-up e-mail, there should be no advocating for any faith or belief system, no harassing of any faith or belief system.

For organizations considering a party around December, refer to it as a winter or year-end holiday party instead of a Christmas party, she advises. Consider including small cards on the food table that give a brief meaning behind Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Ramadan, the winter solstice and any other winter-related holiday.

Keep modifying your workplace observances to reflect your internal workforce or culture, she said.

“Why do we get so knotted up if [employees are] taking time off for Rosh Hashanah or some other holiday? We get knotted up because we’re afraid, and we’re afraid, in part, because we don’t understand.

“One thing HR has to do is educate people,” Wigglesworth said. “An introduction to a world religion class should ideally be part of every company’s diversity training portfolio.”

Novations’ Frazier-Bohnert suggests the following tips for employers considering a holiday party:

  • Seek employee participation in planning holiday celebrations and at least solicit their ideas and suggestions.
  • Allow employees to opt out of the organization’s holiday events without being penalized or attaching a negative connotation for doing so.
  • Allow non-Christian employees to offer alternatives that are sanctioned but not mandated by the employer.
  • Be aware of the seasonal observances of all religions that may be represented in your organization, and don’t focus only on Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.
  • Offer vegetarian alternatives to meals served at holiday celebrations, and be conscious that serving alcohol at parties might make some employees uncomfortable. And it might be against company policy.

“Management can’t just delegate holiday planning to a single employee who may have been in charge for many years,” Frazier-Bohnert said. “There has to be real outreach and involvement by top management. They’ve got to be sensitive to the religious beliefs of all employees and create more flexible celebrations so that no one will feel excluded.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kathy.gurchiek@shrm.org.


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