By Simma Lieberman
Q: Aren’t you being too politically correct when you tell us to not have a Christmas party? That’s a time when we get to socialize and feel good.
A: We have never said don’t have a Christmas party at your house. We are speaking about the work environment where you have many people who do not celebrate Christmas but celebrate other holidays. You can have a holiday party or end of year party. You can even ask people to talk about any holidays they celebrate this time of year. Before there was any consciousness around appreciating differences we would hear from other employees who said they did not feel comfortable participating or attending an office party that was just for Christmas. Celebrations in the workplace are for everyone. Is it more important to have a “Christmas” party at work which will make some people feel excluded and valued less or to be able to have full participation and good will that will last the year?
Q: What’s wrong with calling it a Christmas party? Everyone at work knows what it means. I think you are being nit picky.
A: There are a lot of people in the workplace that do not traditionally celebrate Christmas; Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, etc. Many of these people do not celebrate Christmas and feel excluded. They would like to socialize and be part of office festivities but are uncomfortable doing so. This results in them simply not attending. When this happens your organization has lost an opportunity to bring people together and help build a more cohesive team. Its very important for the success and productivity of employees that they see themselves as a valued member of an organization where they can be comfortable presenting ideas.
Q: How do I know what holidays people celebrate? I don’t want to say the wrong thing.
A: Just ask them. You might be surprised. Someone who seems a lot like you may celebrate very different holidays and someone who seems totally different may celebrate exactly what you do.
Q: Do I have to give my employees days off every time its one of their religious holidays? Won’t other employees start complaining. Is it ok if I ask people before I hire them their religion and how they practice it so I can avoid hiring people who want a lot of days off?
A: Questions from employers and employees regarding time off for religious observances are getting more frequent.
The best way for me to respond is to share with you some best practices of other organizations. Some organizations are giving their employees a certain amount of days for personal time or floating holidays. Employees can then choose when they will take those days. Those days can be used for any reason, so that no one religion is favored over others and people who are not religious get the same days off. If an employee goes over the allotted days, they can take the time off with no pay or in some cases are able to trade days off with another person. If one group is not awarded favoritism over another there will be no grounds for complaint.
It is illegal to ask someone what their religion is and how they observe before you hire them. After you offer them the job you can ask them if there is anything they would like you to know in order to help them work at their optimum level.
Q: One of my employees accused me of taking g-d out of this time of year and said I was being disrespectful of her religious freedom.
A: Everyone is entitled to believe or not believe and worship the way they want as long as they do not injure others. You can be as observant and active as you want to be outside of the work environment. It is not appropriate to proselytize in the workplace or insist that the company follows your beliefs. Not everyone believes in the same concept of g-d. Your beliefs are with you always. They are inside you and make you who you are. No one can take that away from you just because their religious beliefs are not the same.
It is important that the workplace is an environment where everyone feels comfortable and that their contributions are based on results rather than how they celebrate the holidays.
Q: I’m from a faith that doesn’t celebrate Christmas. When people at work or on the street come up to me and say “Merry Christmas,” what do I say? Are they assuming that I believe the way they do?
A: When someone greets you with “Merry Christmas,” they are wishing you well during this season. When I am greeted like that I view it as another person’s way of including me in their good feelings. At the same time it can also be an opportunity, to share some information about your culture with grace and good intent.