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Making All Employees Feel Included During the Holidays

How parties, decorations and gift-giving can accommodate non-Christians, atheists

Atheists, Muslims and other employees who don’t celebrate Christmas often feel left out amid the workplace holiday parties and department-decorating contests. How can employers create a spirit of celebration while remaining sensitive to the needs of all workers?

“It’s fine to have a holiday party,” said employment attorney Doug Kauffman, a partner with Balch and Bingham LLP in Birmingham, Ala. “You have to be careful not to water down the season just to be politically correct or sensitive to those who don’t celebrate.”

Employment attorney Robin Shea, a partner with Constangy, Brooks and Smith LLP in Winston-Salem, N.C., suggested that organizations planning a holiday celebration look at the makeup of their workforce and take that into account when deciding what they want to do.

“You don’t want to pry into the religious beliefs of your employees,” said Shea. “But you might generally know, this is a predominantly Christian workplace with some Jews, or most employees are non-practicing for their religion, with some atheists.”

You can always ask your employees what they want, said Kristen Irey, PHR, manager of the human resource program at Peirce College in Philadelphia. They may want a party after the holidays, when it’s easier to relax and people don’t have as many other obligations.

Some considerations when planning the celebration:

Choose workplace decorations carefully. First, have a diverse group of employees plan the party, and be mindful of the decorations you choose. If you have some that are clearly Christmas decorations, consider incorporating other holiday decor, said Kauffman. Most people associate wreaths and greenery with generic year-end celebrations. Trees may straddle the border between secular and Christian, but a manger is a poor choice. Employees have more leeway in their personal workspace, such as in their cubicles or on their desks.

You may opt to have decorating contests that aren’t specifically geared toward Christmas. Irey worked in one office where each department took a different holiday theme, even though it was during the Christmas season.

“There was one for Halloween, one for Valentine’s Day, one for St. Patrick’s Day,” Irey said. “It was morale-boosting, and a lot of fun because it was a little bit quirky.”

Make the holiday party voluntary, and consider the timing. If the party is during work hours, people such as Jehovah’s Witnesses—who don’t celebrate any holiday—would be stuck at their desks while others were enjoying the festivities. Moving the party after work would avoid that problem, said Kauffman.

Workplace holiday parties should always be voluntary, said Shea. If parties are mandatory or workers are pressured to go, there could be wage and hour issues for nonexempt employees.

“From a religious standpoint, make everyone feel welcome, but don’t force them to come,” said Shea.

Be aware of allergies and special diets when offering food at the holiday party. Holiday office potlucks more than doubled between 2012 and 2014, with 22 percent now reporting that this is how food is served at their holiday party, according to a November 2014 survey by Seamless Corporate Accounts of GrubHub Inc. With nut allergies rising, and vegetarian and gluten-free diets becoming more common, potlucks are a good way to give everyone a variety of options. In cities, where time constraints and commutes make cooking and transporting food a challenge, some employees are ordering their favorite foods for delivery to the office holiday party.

If you have a gift exchange, make it optional. “There can be people who don’t want to get a gift, who don’t have the time, or who don’t have the money,” said Irey.

Another option is to let people exchange gifts on their own, similar to how employees may choose to participate in an office basketball pool during March Madness, said Bruce Tulgan, CEO of Rainmaker Thinking.

Joan Mooney is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.


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