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How to Make Holiday Celebrations More Inclusive

Tensions can rise in December when numerous religious and secular holidays occur. Make employees feel included by recognizing the religious observances important to them throughout the year.


​December is the time of year to be jolly—or so the department store TV commercials tell us. But the traditional year-end company “holiday” festivities can leave some workers feeling left out and unhappy. 

As a result, HR professionals, who often are tasked with planning the events, can become frustrated.

It’s the perennial “December dilemma,” which occurs every year between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day when several religious and secular holidays occur. Emotions can be heightened, tensions can rise and misunderstandings can occur. Even those with the best intentions make mistakes.

“It can be a bit of a dilemma to make sure you are trying to be inclusive of everyone [while] also being mindful of where you might not be—and that is an ongoing journey,” says Rev. Mark Fowler, deputy chief executive officer of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding in New York City.

While the U.S. workforce is growing increasingly diverse, Christians still make up about three-quarters of the country’s population. Yet if even just a small number of employees feel excluded, it can have a negative impact on an organization’s engagement and productivity, experts say. 

So, developing a greater awareness of which religious holidays are important to employees—and how people prefer to celebrate (or not)—can have significant benefits for workers and employers alike, Fowler says.

Be Aware

The goal of most end-of-year celebrations is to show appreciation for employees. Leaders who want to be inclusive will focus on making workers feel that they belong and that their presence is valued, says Eric Peterson, a diversity and inclusion trainer in Silver Spring, Md. 

“One way to not be inclusive is to make somebody feel invisible, to make them feel as though the organization just has no idea who they are, what is pleasing to them and what is offensive,” says Peterson, a senior consultant with Cook Ross Inc. 

That might happen, for example, when what an employer calls a “holiday party” is “really a Christmas party in disguise,” Fowler says. “There’s a big tree with ornaments and gifts underneath,” which for most people corresponds with Christmas.

That doesn’t mean you should shy away from acknowledging Christmas. “Christians are part of the workforce, too,” he says. “Make sure people understand that it’s fine to say ‘Merry Christmas’ to those who celebrate that tradition, but that not everyone does.”

However, the significant attention and buildup to Christmas can overshadow non-Christian holidays.

“There are holidays and celebrations that happen throughout the year,” Fowler says, “and yet they don’t seem to get the same kind of attention that holidays at the end of the year do.”

A more inclusive approach is to recognize that employees come from a variety of faiths and traditions that mark special days at many different times, he says.

​Fall and Winter Holidays

Bodhi Day. This Buddhist holiday, which commemorates the day that Siddhartha Guatama, the historical Buddha, experienced enlightenment, is traditionally celebrated on Dec. 8.

Christmas. This celebration of the birth of Jesus, the central figure of Christianity, takes place on Dec. 25. For Eastern Orthodox Christians, it takes place on Jan. 7.

Diwali. This five-day Hindu Festival of Lights begins Nov. 6 in 2018 and Oct. 27 in 2019.

Eid al-Fitr. This celebration that marks the end of Ramadan in the Muslim faith has shifting dates and can sometimes fall in December. However, in 2019, it will start at sundown on June 4.

Hanukkah. In 2018, this eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights will start at sundown on Dec. 2 and end at sundown Dec. 10.

Kwanzaa. This weeklong secular holiday honoring African-American heritage is celebrated Dec. 26-Jan. 1 each year.

Lunar New Year. This traditional Chinese holiday marking the end of winter falls on Feb. 5, 2019.

Yule. This Wiccan or pagan celebration of the winter solstice takes place every year between Dec. 20 and Dec. 23.

Source: Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.

It's Personal

For many employees, their religion helps define them as people.

“It informs them about what sort of people they ought to be” at work and at home, says Kent Johnson, a religious diversity trainer in Houston.

Religious holidays can be reminders or expressions of those values, he says.

“When a culture ignores that facet of their employee base, it’s sending a message—and maybe it’s not an intended message—that your faith doesn’t matter here,” Johnson says.

In some workplace cultures, employees are encouraged to “bring their whole selves to work.” But if employees are worried about hiding an essential element of who they are, such as their deeply held religious beliefs, they can’t actually do that.

Sumreen Ahmad, global change management director at Accenture in Detroit, says of her Muslim faith, “[It has allowed me] to tap into parts of who I am as a leader that normally I might not have otherwise. I’m driven by my faith.” 

Ahmad, who leads the Interfaith North America Employee Resource Group at Accenture, says her religion gives her a greater sense of purpose and drives her to a higher standard of accountability and performance.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Introduction to the Human Resources Discipline of Diversity]

A Better Way

Here are some tips for holding more-inclusive year-end events:

Create a diverse planning committee. Avoid missteps by involving people with varying beliefs when preparing for any holiday events, says Deborah Levine, editor-in-chief of the American Diversity Report. But remember that not all people of the same faith choose to observe and celebrate holidays the same way.

Avoid scheduling mistakes. Check an interfaith calendar to avoid scheduling the end-of-year celebration on any of the holidays that might fall in December. For example, Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, begins at sundown on Dec. 2 and ends the same time on Dec. 10 this year. Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day on Dec. 8.  

‘There are holidays and celebrations that happen throughout the year, and yet they don’t seem to get the same kind of attention that holidays at the end of the year do.’
—Rev. Mark Fowler

Make it voluntary. If you’re hosting a holiday party, don’t make it mandatory. Some people won’t feel comfortable attending. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, don’t celebrate holidays. Others may have personal reasons for wanting to steer clear. For instance, people who are grieving, depressed or otherwise dissatisfied with some aspect of their lives can find the holidays to be painful reminders of who or what they’re missing. 

Make it clear to employees that their attendance is optional, says attorney Helene Wasserman, a shareholder with Littler in Los Angeles. Make sure that supervisors understand that as well. The HR team may say it’s optional, but do employees really believe it? 

“Is your boss going to be offended that you’re not there?” Wasserman asks. Will you miss out on that next promotion? “That’s why it’s vital that managers realize—that all their employees realize—exactly how voluntary it is [and] that nothing is going to happen if you go or don’t go,” she says.

Provide food options. “Christmas ham is popular, but many groups would not eat that ham—Jewish, Muslim, Hindu,” Levine says. That’s why it’s important to serve food that meets employees’ kosher, halal and vegetarian dietary needs. However, just offering variety might not suffice. For some, even seeing certain meats next to their preferred dishes would be offensive, she says, so consider placing different kinds of food on separate tables.

Consider a two-stage party. Committed Muslims don’t drink alcohol, and “they also don’t want to be present where alcohol is served,” says Hanadi Chehabeddine, a diversity trainer on Islam in Eden Prairie, Minn. Many also might be uncomfortable with secular music and dancing. She suggests planning a party with two parts, one with no alcohol in the initial stage when leaders thank employees and make any special announcements, and then a more free-flowing celebration in which alcohol is available and music is played. The schedule of events should be clearly spelled out in the invitation, she advises, so that attendees know what to expect and can make their choices accordingly.

This approach wouldn’t accommodate only Muslims. The alcohol-free portion of the event might also be appreciated by pregnant women, recovering alcoholics and people of other faiths, she says. 

Choose decorations carefully. If your office chooses to put up holiday decorations, seek ways to make them inclusive. Consider adding educational cards nearby to explain the religious tradition to others, the Tanenbaum Center advises. Be aware that red and green decorations are associated with Christmas, Levine says, while blue and white are traditionally used for Hanukkah celebrations.

Make gift exchanges optional. Employees shouldn’t be forced to buy gifts for their co-workers, Peterson says. At Cook Ross, all employees receive a $20 Visa gift card from the company that they can use to purchase a present for a colleague. Those who want to participate sign up on a website and receive a co-worker’s name and a list of things that the person might like, he says. 

Create awareness of other religions. Even HR professionals at small companies can help employees learn about other religions and holidays throughout the year, Ahmad says. Start with an interfaith calendar. Ask employees which holidays are important to them and recognize those religious holidays throughout the year. At Accenture’s New York City office, for example, workers participated in a “challah bake” to learn more about the special bread made for the Jewish Sabbath. 

“When you bring people together to celebrate in those ways, it creates better engagement,” Ahmad says. “When people get to know and understand one another, we know that collaboration increases.”

At Texas Instruments, employees are invited to panel discussions to learn more about the various religions of their fellow workers, Johnson recalls. “They have much more in common than people realize,” he says.

Panelists are asked to share how their faith relates to their work.

Some might fear conflicts that could erupt over discussions of religions, but such conversations can help dispel myths and stereotypes, Johnson says, if conducted with mutual respect.

If the workplace culture discourages employees from talking about their faith, he says, “they’ll only seek people of their own faith, and they’ll worry about people who are different from them, and distrust will creep in.”

Another thing to keep in mind: 21 percent of the U.S. population reports no religious identity or faith tradition, including atheists and agnostics, according to Gallup. You can be inclusive of these individuals by building awareness around recognition days that focus on human rights, Fowler says. And make it clear that it’s OK for them to opt out of any events.

Offer floating holidays. A good way to show employees that you value their beliefs is to offer floating holidays so they can take time off for religious observances that are meaningful to them throughout the year, Peterson says. Make sure that supervisors respect those holidays and are not asking employees to respond to e-mail on these days, for example, he says. Only 30 percent of employers now offer paid floating holidays, according to a SHRM report on 2017 holiday schedules.

Employers with more than 15 employees must grant requests for time off for religious observances not listed on the company’s holiday schedule, unless it would cause an undue hardship, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Invite feedback. Provide a way for workers to offer feedback anonymously. If they choose to leave their names, make sure you follow up with them to show you value their suggestions and explain whether you will make changes for next year.

“Whatever you want to do, give people a way to respond [so that] they won’t feel punished if they give honest feedback,” Peterson says. “One of the ways to make someone feel invisible is to not give them a voice.”

Be forgiving. Don’t be too hard on yourself. “A diverse and inclusive organization is not one that never makes a mistake,” Peterson says. Rather, it’s one that has people who respond inclusively when things don’t go well.  

Ways to Make All Employees Feel Included

Celebrate in January

We have opted for a New Year gathering after the main holiday season has wound down. We acknowledge the previous year’s accomplishments and speak about our future goals. We usually schedule the event for the second week of January, after everyone is back from vacation and settled into a normal routine. We hold it after work at an offsite location. 

Our president speaks, and we play a video highlighting our victories for the past year. We also show photos of employees at work so we can reminisce together. 

We celebrate with food, drinks, music, dancing and games. A favorite game is “Staff Member Bingo,” which requires players to collect the signatures of other staff members who meet the criteria, such as someone who can do a handstand.

—Kristen Stine, human resources director, PETA Foundation, Norfolk, Va. 


Offer Floating Holidays

At WVU Medicine, we will offer a floating holiday to our 17,000 employees starting in 2019. In addition to six standard paid holidays (New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, July Fourth, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas), workers will be offered one extra paid day off each year to use at their discretion. This gives employees the flexibility to recognize any day based on their individual preference.

—Alicia Jade Martin, HR customer service specialist, WVU Medicine, Morgantown, W. Va.


Host Charity Events

In addition to the usual festivals celebrated at work, we participate in programs like planting saplings and making donations to retirement homes and orphanages. That’s the way we share joy with others in a society-inclusive approach.

—Swati Sinha, self-employed HR consultant, New Delhi, India

Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor for HR Magazine.