Dealing with the 'Christmas' vs. 'Holiday Season' Issue

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If you're fortunate enough to be employed at the moment, you may be in the position of having to figure out how to navigate your organization through Christmas and the issues that arise from observing the biggest holiday of the year. If you work with a lot of people who come from countries or religious backgrounds in which Christmas isn't widely observed, for example, how do you get through the holidays without alienating a segment of your work force?


I happen to be one of the people for whom Christmas isn't a big deal. I'm a Bah', not a Christian, so my family observes Bah' holidays and not Christian holidays. That said, I've always found the "Christmas spirit" to be a refreshing and welcome change each year in the way people tend to treat each other, if only for a few days. So if someone says, "Merry Christmas" to me, he's going to get a "Merry Christmas" right back.


At the same time, it's easy for me to see that there is a certain exclusivity inherent in singling out Christmas for special attention in the workplace, and I'm all for preventing any employee from feeling marginalized in any way. So I can appreciate the legitimacy of the issue. I spoke recently about all of this with Jeff Diana, a human resources expert and chief people officer at SuccessFactors, a provider of HR management software. For starters, I asked him for his advice on the best way to deal with cultural and religious sensitivities with respect to holiday parties, given that many workplaces are quite diverse. Diana recommended recognizing as many key cultural occasions as you can:

We have people from all across the globe, and when they come to us with ideas about celebrating different cultural events, we want to provide them with the opportunity, and if we can, some nominal funding to do that. That's the best way to handle that. The one that obviously comes up the most is when people want to talk about "Christmas" vs. the "holiday season." There are cultural sensitivities when you have multiple cultural holidays in the same time window, and you don't expand your celebration to encompass them. People look at that from the activities you drive to the specific words you use-calling it the "Christmas season" vs. the "holiday season"-it makes a difference to people. And then of course, making sure the types of images you use and the things you say are inclusive. Then throughout the year you give people the opportunity to celebrate the different cultural customs that are important to them. If you do that on an even footing, people will view that as a very open and inclusive workplace.

Diana said avoiding references to "Christmas" in favor of the more generic "holiday season" isn't necessarily the best way to go:

You just have to make sure that if you're going to talk about Christmas, you're also talking about the Jewish holiday season, and [maintain that inclusivity] when it comes to Chinese New Year, and you can run the gamut. If you're like many organizations that pick one or two fairly predominant holidays that they're going to put an event around, if you're going to take that strategy, then I would say yes, you want to be broad and talk about the holiday season. If you're going to allow people to celebrate all of those things, they won't look at it as any different because you're going to have a similar conversation and give similar visibility and support to the other holidays that are out there.

Another issue that arises is the prudence of holding a big holiday party at a time when so much sacrifice is being made by employees just to keep their companies afloat. According to Diana, companies need to look at alternatives:

The days of the really big, lavish holiday parties are really moving behind us, and I would say there are a couple of reasons for that. One, when you look at the demographics of the work force, the traditional, lavish parties don't resonate with the millennials and other younger workers. Those don't fit the drives that really engage them. So some of it is just the changing mix of the work force.


You also have the bigger, broader view of the economy and what's happening out there, and in many instances, people don't want to spend lavishly. Even if it's not that lavish, the view of spending those dollars in a tough time, when you have tight budgets and you might have had to lay people off or delay hiring someone, that can create some backlash, even if your intent was very good. The types of things people are now doing are really much more around getting groups together, doing it in a lighthearted way, and in many cases, focusing on the idea of giving back. So you have things like company-sponsored wrapping of gifts for Toys for Tots, or doing a soup-kitchen event. People are fine with putting their time in for doing that, and it creates an energy and some community. So it's a great way to give back at a time when people want to give back.


Another theme you hear from people is, rather than doing events, give back to people their own time. Time is absolutely a gift, and none of us has as much time as we'd like to get everything done we'd like, or to spend it with the people we want to spend it with. So companies are shutting down for a day or giving people time off during the holidays rather than spending dollars on a holiday party.