Deck the Halls … Or Not?

Religious displays at Christmastime may offend some workers

By Dana Wilkie Nov 12, 2013
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As Christmas and Hanukkah approach, some employees will decorate their cubicles and offices with religious and secular displays—a nativity scene, a Star of David, a Santa Claus figurine, an angel-topped holiday tree.

What do managers do if some workers are offended by the exhibits?

U.S. courts have defined a number of icons associated with the holidays, including Christmas trees, as “secular” symbols that don’t require accommodations for religious beliefs, said David Barron, a labor and employment attorney in the Houston office of Cozen O’Connor.

“Santa Claus is certainly one of the most secularized icons of the Christmas season, and the presence of someone in a Santa suit would not in itself require religious accommodation,” he explained. “It is also conceivable that a person’s religious beliefs could regard Santa as being so secular as to be contrary to the religious message of Christmas. Either way, the only legal obligation would be for the employer to reasonably accommodate the religious objections, which, at most, would mean excusing the employee from participation in any Santa Claus-related activities.”

But what if workers are offended by displays that are overtly religious, such as holiday cards pinned on a cubicle with messages about Jesus Christ? According to experts, an employee’s religious expression might be considered offensive if, say, the worker attempts to convert colleagues to a faith. But they pointed out that there’s a difference between merely displaying a nativity scene at the office and conducting a Bible study on work time.

“The best rule is to not discriminate,” Barron advised. “That might mean allowing a non-disruptive display of a religious holiday symbol in the workplace. If you allow the display of a nativity scene on one worker’s desk, it will be hard to refuse to accommodate an employee who wants to display a Star of David. That kind of accommodation can vary by employer, but, again, it cannot be arbitrary—and stated policies should clearly define what is and is not acceptable.”

Steve Miller, a labor and employment attorney in Chicago, said the most important thing managers should do is “listen to employees, hear their concerns, and talk with them about what kinds of accommodations would make them happy.”

He added, “You might try to limit the number of decorations or limit them to a particular area of the office.”

What about the annual office holiday party? What accommodations should be offered to workers who don’t wish to attend the festivities? A day off? Working from home?

Number 1, make sure the holiday party isn’t mandatory,” Miller said. “Number 2, give the day or afternoon off. Also, holiday parties should not just be a Christmas party but something that celebrates the holidays in general. That helps to lessen complaints.”

Darron said providing time-off accommodations for those who don’t want to attend holiday parties isn’t necessary. 

"A more modest, yet still effective, approach would be to make it clear that attendance at the holiday party is completely voluntary, and do not suggest that attendance will benefit a person’s standing within the company or that declining to attend will be a detriment,” he said.

Dave Jones, president of workplace motivation consultancy PassionWorks!, said that before the holidays, HR managers need to weigh celebrations and displays against “the values of their organization.”

Take gift-giving during the holidays. “If people want to buy each other gifts, they should be able to,” Jones said. “But if these gifts violate the values, then that's not cool.”

He added: “In every team I've ever led, ‘fun’ is one of our stated values. When you [weigh this against other] values—such as respect, honesty, professionalism, ethics and diversity—you get a balance that creates the kind of place people want to work in.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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