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Flexibility for Holiday Time Off Increasingly Important in Diverse Workforce

A santa claus sitting on the beach with a laptop.

​Do you know which holidays the employees in your workforce celebrate? When it comes to office decorations, staff parties and time off, managers should be flexible and accommodating whenever possible, while soliciting ideas from the rank and file, experts say.


"Most of our clients are trying to be as inclusive as possible year-round," said Carol Sladek, a work/life expert for Chicago-based Aon Hewitt, a human resources and management consulting firm. "That's particularly important around the holidays. They have folks of lots of different religions and practices that don't necessarily follow the holiday calendar we are used to. Creating that atmosphere of inclusion around the office is important."

Sladek helps employers design time-off policies. She said more companies are reducing the number of scheduled days off (typically aligned with conventional holidays) in favor of having more floating holidays that workers can use when they choose.

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A mix of scheduled holidays and floating holidays "allows employees to be off around the six or seven days that the employer shuts down but also allows them to be off on the days that are important to them," Sladek said.


Workplaces that are open 24 hours a day, every day, such as hospitals, can face challenges but also opportunities. One challenge is that every shift must be covered, so some employees must work even on scheduled holidays. On the other hand, staffers who don't celebrate certain holidays can work on these days, typically earning premium pay.


Employers that are closed for certain holidays—such as Christmas Day—will sometimes accommodate workers who don't observe the holiday.


"We do have clients who allow people to work those days from home and trade those days for another day if they desire," Sladek said.


Vanessa Matsis-McCready, HR manager for Hollywood, Fla.-based Engage PEO, a personnel services firm, said that employers should have clear policies about requesting and granting time off for the holidays. If the work environment suits it, employees could be allowed to come into the workplace or to work from home on a scheduled holiday, just as they might if the office were closed due to a snowstorm. Just be sure a supervisor, and possibly senior management, signs off on such a request.


"You definitely want to have approval from a manager in advance," she said.

Celebrating and Decorating Tips

Andrew Filev, the CEO of work management platform Wrike, based in Mountain View, Calif., said that bosses should consider allowing employees to work remotely during the holidays so that employees can spend more time with their families.


"Be flexible with people if they need to run out for an hour or two to see their kid's school play or make an appearance at their spouse's Christmas party," he said. "Remote work makes it easy to leave the office without too much of a hit to productivity."


Other experts said employers can take simple steps to ensure that holiday parties and decorations don't make some of their staff feel excluded.


Christy Hopkins, a New York-based HR consultant and recruiter, said managers should consider delegating responsibility for decorations to an employee committee.


"Especially if you have a diverse office, you can create a decorating committee for employees to join and give them a budget to plan and do the decorating themselves," Hopkins said. Another idea: Give each person a stipend to use for decorating their space, or not, as they see fit. "This also helps with ensuring that diverse holidays are covered and everyone feels supported."


"It's important that your company policy is clear," Matsis-McCready said. "You don't want to suddenly have a 'no decorations' rule on Dec. 1 and the rest of the year you can have any decorations you want."


What about the growing sensitivity over what once was the default holiday greeting: "Merry Christmas"?  There has been some pushback in the workplace and the political world over the more-inclusive phrase "Happy Holidays," and President-elect Donald Trump even vowed to stamp out the expression. But Sladek predicted that employers will not be so quick to follow Trump's lead.


"I think there's going to be an increased focus on inclusion," she said. "Employers will bend over a little backwards to make sure everyone feels included because of the outcry over the election."


Daniel Weintraub is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, Calif.

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