Posted on December 22, 2009

Culturally Competent Guide to Holidays in the Workplace

Lizz Carroll, Diversity, Inc., December 21, 2009


Party Etiquette

It’s always nice when your company throws an office-wide get-together before the holidays, but what should they call it so that it’s inclusive to all invited?

“A ‘holiday party’ is an acceptable name for a seasonal event–it could reference Martin Luther King Day or Christmas or any other federal holiday a company recognizes,” says Nancy Di Dia, Boehringer Ingelheim’s executive director of diversity, inclusion and engagement.

While this may work in some offices, Joyce S. Dubensky, executive vice president and CEO of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, advises a more conservative approach. “Many organizations opt for ‘holiday party,’ which sounds neutral but can still create problems,” she says. “There are religions, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, that don’t celebrate any of the winter holidays. In fact, their faith bars them from observing.”


So what’s the solution? “An alternative would be to create a name that’s not specifically holiday-focused, like ‘2009 Company X Celebration.’ Because the celebration is not based on the holidays, those who don’t or can’t celebrate any winter holidays are still included,” says Dubensky.

Deck the Halls

You’ve been put in charge of decorating for the big event, so how do you create an environment that makes everyone feel comfortable?

“Keep decorating as seasonal as possible–use terms like ‘Season’s Greetings,’ ‘Looking Forward’ and ‘Best Wishes in the New Year.’ If it stays focused on the new year, it also ties to business goals and the promise of having the opportunity to achieve or exceed goals in a new year,” says Di Dia.

For Dubensky, teamwork and variety are key. She says, “One tactic we recommend is to put together a multi-faith team of employees to help you plan and coordinate the event. That way, you get diversity of views about the kind of party to throw.”

She adds, “Different companies also have different cultures. A multi-faith, seasonal display of Christmas tree, menorah and a Kinara (the holder for Kwanzaa candles) mixed with generic winter-themed decorations may be completely acceptable for one company, while another may opt strictly for seasonal decorations (e.g., snowflakes, flower arrangements with seasonal flowers and berries), a themed party with related decorations (like a ’50s party) or even no decorations at all.”



You love giving gifts to others during this season, even if it’s just a gesture, but how do you give presents to those who don’t share the same faith as you? Dubensky advises to give “joyfully and with a spirit of goodwill,” but make sure you remain respectful. “Of course, any gifts should not involve religious elements that may be experienced as coercive or proselytizing–because that could turn the gift into an unwelcome happening. It is best to avoid gifts with explicit references to your religious beliefs,” she says.



She [Dubensky] adds, “If you do choose to offer personalized holiday greetings, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa and Blessed Eid (if it falls in December) are the appropriate greetings. Many card stores now offer these options during the holiday season.”

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