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Inclusive Holidays


by Clif Boutelle, SIOP Public Relations

A Joyous Time of Year Can Turn Into a Nightmare for Some Employees if Holiday Parties Aren’t Planned With Everyone in Mind

Many organizations conduct Christmas parties as a way to thank employees for another year and to promote morale and camaraderie.

However, says Eden B. King, an associate professor at George Mason University who has conducted research on diversity and inclusiveness, “throwing a Christmas party is a good way to break down, rather than build up, morale and camaraderie.”

Given the diversity of the modern workforce, a traditional Christmas celebration complete with Santa, a decorated tree, Christmas songs and present exchanges, may not be a good thing.

According to research from the Pew Foundation, at least 30% of Americans do not consider themselves to be Christian and thus would likely feel unwelcome at an event with “a Christmas label,” King added.

Some employers are making changes to their holiday celebrations to promote inclusivity and diversity, though others still hold traditional Christmas parties.

“The religious, and possibly discriminatory, nature of a Christmas celebration may be easily overlooked within organizations because many people may think of Christmas as being a secular or cultural holiday,” said Jason Dahling, an associate professor of psychology at The College of New Jersey.

He pointed to Pew Research Center data that show millennials in particular are more likely to see Christmas as a cultural rather than a religious holiday. The idea of a year-end celebration is to bring people together not shut them out, and organizations should make every effort to plan an event that will promote inclusivity and diversity and avoid complaints.

Yet, it can be difficult to plan an event that is going to please everybody.

“People have so many identities that what feels inclusive to a Christian, Jew, Muslim, or Hindu may not be the case with others, said Mindy Bergman, a professor of psychology at Texas A&M University and an expert in organizational culture and climate.

So attention needs to be given to plan an event that is inclusive of all employees.

One way to be inclusive is to use decorations that honor the season without being religious, suggests Bergman.

“Snowflakes, snow globes, snowmen, and snowwomen are great examples,” she said. “A different idea would be to highlight a culture very different from your own perhaps ‘holidays in Japan’ for an American company or a cultural exchange of holiday decorations and recipes between two corporate sites in different parts of the world. That would be an opportunity to try new foods, put up different decorations, and learn about another culture.”

The goal is to respect the fact that there are many people with many cultures within a workplace, some obvious and some less so, and that all employees deserve respect and inclusion, Bergman added.

“This is not simply a matter of being politically correct,” King said. “A core human motivation is the need to belong; our feelings, beliefs, and actions are tied tightly to a need to be connected to others. A Christmas party would dismantle a sense of belonging by inherently excluding Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, and Jewish employees.”

“This type of exclusion, arguably minor or subtle in nature, can be particularly pernicious. In a recent meta-analysis published in the Journal of Management, my colleagues and I found that the effects of subtle discrimination on mental and physical health, job attitudes, and performance are just as bad if not worse than the effects of obvious or overt discrimination,” she added.

It is not unusual for an employee to request a religious accommodation, such as time off when working days align with religious holidays or festivals, or breaks in the day to pray. Another could be asking for food that meets their dietary restrictions when the organization is providing a meal.

Reactions to these kinds of requests are typically mixed, said Dahling.

“Many employees understand the importance of these practices to their observant colleagues and accept their presence in the workplace,” he said. “Others may see these requests as discretionary or unfair, and consequently they may raise objections that can lead to interpersonal conflict and even litigation.”

It’s not only religion that concerns planners.

“People have such diverse interests, foibles, experiences, and even pet peeves that not everyone is going to be pleased all the time,” Bergman said.

These considerations, coupled with the added stress leading up to the holiday season, have some employers developing alternatives to the traditional Christmas party.

“Organizations should continue to have parties or get-togethers if that’s part of their culture. Employees work hard and deserve to be recognized and awarded,” Bergman said.

“Why not simply celebrate the end of the calendar year?” asked King.

Bergman agrees it may be wise to consider a new twist to Christmas parties, perhaps moving them to a different time of the year, which some companies are already doing.

“This would avoid some of the challenges associated with different people’s desires around holiday celebrations and it might reduce seasonal fatigue,” Bergman said. “There are so many events associated with the holidays—office parties, school concerts, get-togethers at the workplace of an employee’s spouse or partner, neighborhood and family events, travel, and so on—that an office tradition of celebrating during a different time of the year might be a positive change, giving people something to look forward to instead of feeling overwhelmed by all the end-of-year events and activities.”

Having a party to celebrate the New Year in early-to-mid January might be appreciated by employees, she added.

Yet, as Bergman pointed out, it is sometimes impossible to please everyone and there may be complaints or objections to a planned event no matter how much effort was made to be inclusive.

She suggests:

  • Treat complaints like any others that occur in the workplace and that employees should be treated with respect and their concerns not be dismissed outright.
  • Try to accommodate their concerns. If it is a question about food, there’s no reason why vegan food requests cannot be accommodated.
  • Event planners should determine if they might have some “blind spots” about the event.  We all have them, even those of us who are most committed to inclusion, cultural competence, and interpersonal respect. Ask colleagues or friends or even stakeholders in the community for their opinions when planning the event.
  • Event planners should ask themselves “How would I feel if I were from a different background?” “What would our clients say if they heard about or saw this event?’ ‘What ‘blind spots’ do I have and who can help me see things through a different lens?’ These questions could help reveal solutions to the concerns that employees raise. Even if you cannot resolve the concerns completely, making a respectful effort goes a long way to making people feel valued.

So, beware of the pitfalls of planning holiday celebrations.  However, after taking into consideration any concerns colleagues might have and being comfortable that plans have been made to make everyone feel welcome, then have a great time. After all, that is what office parties are meant to accomplish.