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Diversity and the Holidays: Best Practices That Show Respect for All Traditions

In the U.S., the calendar year takes shape around seasonal holidays drawn from many cultural and religious traditions. This can pose challenges for business leaders who must consider a host of related issues. Is a December holiday party a good idea or a terrible mistake? Does our time-off policy favor those who celebrate certain holidays but not others?

With cultural clashes dominating the news, this is an ideal time to review the way your company has navigated the holidays in past years. Not only will the right policies and practices help your staff feel respected, but also ensure that clients, vendors, visitors and the community feel seen and honored too.

The Incredible Range of Holidays That People Celebrate

Though every U.S. state is home to cultural enclaves where a majority of people might observe the same holidays, the 2020 Census shows we’re an increasingly diverse nation. The odds are good that your workforce and customer base include people who celebrate a much wider range of cultural and religious holidays than you might realize.

For example, December’s round of celebrations includes Christmas and Hanukkah, but also Bodhi Day, and an array of culturally driven events such as Las Posadas. Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas in January, around the same time many Hispanics observe Three Kings’ Day.

Spring is even busier in terms of cultural and religious events, which include Easter, Passover, Ramadan, Holi and Eid-Ul-Fitr and even more.

Does My Company Have to Observe All These Traditions to Meet Inclusivity Standards?

You can see from Wikipedia’s partial (but very long) list of holidays that this might be next to impossible. At the same time, policies and workplace practices can reflect cultural blind spots and even create evidence for lawsuits. (So-called “fa-la-la-la laws” aim to ensure the rights of employees who face discrimination related to office holiday parties, paid time off and other workplace issues.)

None of this means you have to turn the break room into a year-long kaleidoscope of colors and symbols for every possible holiday or dictate the way employees should greet one another as celebrations arrive. Common sense combined with sensitivity will lead to policies that honor everyone.

Best Practices for Office Parties, Whether Off-Site or On

If you decide to gather your team at any time of year, here’s how to make sure people feel respected and welcomed.

Make attendance optional. No one should feel forced to celebrate seasonal events with work colleagues. If you plan to host a holiday event, make sure supervisors know they shouldn’t “take attendance” before, during or afterward. No one’s decision to skip the event should be noted or questioned. This rule also recognizes differences in health and family that might make party-going an ordeal for some. (Think of people with social anxiety, depression or even the sleep-deprived parent of a fussy newborn.)

Skip cultural and religious themes or decorations. Your venue can still be beautifully lit and decorated, but lean toward neutral colors and symbols. Emphasize fun without focusing on any particular holiday in planning toasts, activities, contests, gifts and other aspects of your celebration.

Lots of food, less alcohol. Many people don’t drink for health, religious or cultural reasons. Offering mocktails and other non-alcoholic choices will enhance their good time. Having plenty of delicious dishes and snacks on hand helps those who do drink alcohol stay sober. If you serve wine, beer or spirits, offer rideshare vouchers for any employees who may need a safe ride home.

Ask senior staff to set a positive example. No need to spoil their fun or turn them into the HR police, but leaders can keep an eye out for situations that violate your company’s code of conduct or constitute potential harassment, discrimination or assault. Talk with senior staff about how to deal with sticky situations ahead of time to minimize conflict while keeping the party friendly for everyone.

Workplace Decor: Tips for Keeping It Simple

Seasonal decorations add a light, welcoming touch to offices, factory floors and other workplaces. There’s no need to ban them, but make sure the decor in common areas doesn’t focus solely on one holiday to the exclusion of others. Twinkling lights, snowflakes and sparkling branches can make a reception room feel festive in winter. The same works in spring with decor that marks the arrival of warm weather, colorful flowers and the joy of being outdoors.

What about employees’ personal spaces? This can be a trickier call. Banning people from decorating their desks, cubes or workstations might seem extreme, but, for example, rows and rows of mini Christmas trees and sparkly garlands could make non-Christians feel like outsiders. Base your decision on what you know about your workplace and the people in it. Whatever direction you take, explain your stance in an all-staff meeting or memo or both, emphasizing the goal of making everyone feel honored and included.

Time-Off Policies That Flex Around Personal Preferences and Practices

Many workplaces give employees paid time off on federal holidays, which include Christmas in the U.S. If this is your current practice, consider adding at least one paid personal day for employees who celebrate other holidays. This gives your team the freedom to choose which day or days they’d like to spend with friends, family or quietly at home. The practice also supports equity when a privately owned business chooses to stay open on Christmas but closes for other holidays.

Consideration and respect for the workforce that fuels your success is always a smart business move. A thoughtful approach to cultural and religious celebrations also radiates the goodwill that strengthens relationships with clients, partners and the community at large.

Thank you to Dean Kaplan, CEO and President, The Kaplan Group for the above blog.

Dean Kaplan is president of The Kaplan Group, a commercial collection agency specializing in large claims and international transactions. With more than 35 years of successful experience in manufacturing, international business leadership and customer service he provides business planning, training and consultation services for a wide range of global companies.