For decades, companies have celebrated a "Christmas shutdown" by closing for several days around Dec. 25. Shifting to calling the time a "holiday shutdown" recognizes that not everyone celebrates Christmas, but some employees may still feel like one religion's celebration takes precedence over others.
"The reality is that most organizations consider employees of different backgrounds to benefit from getting time off for the Christmas holiday," said Miriam Dushane, SHRM-CP, the managing partner of Alaant Workforce Solutions' recruitment division. "That's nice, but it's not really recognizing or being uber-inclusive to individuals that don't celebrate that day."
There are no state or federal laws that mandate when a business is open or closed, according to James R. Hammerschmidt, co-president of Paley Rothman Attorneys at Law. Companies use their discretion to decide when to close, leaving employees to use their paid leave time to celebrate holidays that are not recognized. But some companies are rethinking how they handle holidays.
"It's largely the Wild West—it's up to the employer to decide how they want to establish holiday schedules," he said. "This allows for creativity. Thoughtful and intentional corporate leaders in HR departments are thinking dynamically and taking a holistic approach to the entire holiday calendar based on all of the people who make up their workforce."
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Navigating Religious Beliefs in the Workplace]
A popular option among companies is a floating holiday. This gives employees a paid day off of their choosing to celebrate a cultural, national or ethnic holiday.
"Strategic, progressive HR leaders recognize that the holiday season is not just Nov. 24 to Jan. 2," Hammerschmidt said. "Companies aren't in a position to give more and more time off, but HR folks are finding creative ways people can express holidays throughout the year."
For example, at Paley Rothman, staff are encouraged to share traditional foods tied to celebrations that occur throughout the year. Those who participate send an e-mail with information about the celebration they are honoring. Staff members also contribute blog posts about the holidays they celebrate. According to Hammerschmidt, both initiatives have led to greater sensitivity year-round.
Stephanie Page, an HR leader in a publicly traded leadership advisory firm, says her company established a #culture Slack channel for employees to share information about a day (holiday or not) that is important to them.
"We see colleagues from around the world post about less-known holidays, sharing their family traditions and being celebrated all around the world. It is very touching," Page said. "Or, we encourage out-of-office messages that say something about what you are doing while you are out as a way to encourage and celebrate our employees' lives and traditions."
Paid Time Off for Religious Celebrations
Holidays are a perfect time to show all employees they are a valued part of the organization, Dushane said.
She encourages employers to carve out a holiday paid-time-off allotment that allows employees to take time off for religious celebrations. Ask employees what they might need or be interested in rather than assuming that what is already in place is genuinely inclusive.
"Everyone on my team does celebrate Christmas. We've had a lot of newer people on the team recently, and I've made sure everyone feels comfortable with that and ask if there are other holidays we need to be aware of," she said. "We traditionally do an alcohol swap at our holiday party. I've made sure to talk with our new staff to find out if they are okay with that rather than assuming or leaving someone out."
Flexible Time Off
Some companies offer flexible time off to give people a chance to take time when it is important to them, regardless of the employer's official holiday closures. For example, at the firm Page works for, U.S. exempt employees, which are the majority of the staff members, have unlimited paid time off.
"The company provides its people with a lot of flexibility beyond the firm-wide, year-end closure," she said. "We also have individual holiday calendars for each country—that better celebrates and recognizes country-specific holidays. Even though this gets us closer, we still recognize that some minorities do not align with their country's calendar, and people are welcome to take time off whenever it is important to them."
A Broader View
Hammerschmidt predicts that most non-retail companies in the United States will continue to close on Dec. 25. Time-off options and opportunities to share cultural information can create a more inclusive workplace setting.
"It should be a year-round awareness, not just when 'we' decide that it's time to think about the holidays because ours are around the corner," Page said.
Katie Navarra is a freelance writer in New York state.