News - December 2005

Deck the (Office) Halls...Holiday Sensitivity and Celebration in the Workplace

In today's multicultural workplace environment, holiday sensitivity no longer means simply putting a menorah next to the Christmas tree during the holiday season. Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, Kwanzaa, and Bodhi Day all occur during the fall/winter, and while world political tensions rise, religious sensitivity issues can rise too. Employers challenged to show fairness, employee appreciation, and holiday spirit may be tempted to pull the plug on holiday celebrations altogether. However, there are ways to celebrate the season in the workplace with sensitivity, understanding and respect.

"Employers should strive to ensure that all of their employees' unique cultural beliefs are equally represented and celebrated during the holiday season," said Jennifer Loftus, SPHR, CCP, CBP, GRP, National Director, Astron Solutions.

There are a number of religious and cultural holidays that your employees may observe during the season. In order to encourage understanding of each, they are listed here with a short description.

Christmas - The most recognized and celebrated holiday occurs on December 25, the day that marks Jesus Christ's birth. Over 3 billion Christians worldwide celebrate the holy birth by engaging in various customs and traditions, including singing, gift-giving, gathering with family and friends, and praying.

Hanukkah - "The Festival of Lights" celebrates the victory of the Maccabees, the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem in 165 BC, and the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days. During the eight nights of Hanukkah, candles are lit in a menorah, which holds nine candles: one for each night, plus an extra used to light the other candles. Hanukkah is celebrated by performing traditional songs, enjoying fried foods, gift-giving, and praying.

Ramadan - Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, celebrates the first revelations given to the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims fast during Ramadan, health permitting. They do not eat, drink, smoke, or engage in sexual activity until sundown each day, using the daytime to concentrate on their faith, rather than on everyday concerns. The fast concludes with feasting, gift-giving, and praying.

Kwanzaa - Created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor at California State University, Kwanzaa is a cultural, rather than religious, holiday celebrated from December 26 through January 1 by many African-Americans. The word Kwanzaa is Swahili for "first fruits of the harvest" and involves gathering family and friends to discuss and commit to seven guiding principles. Each day, a candle is lit signifying a principle - unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. A feast is held on December 31 for remembering, reassessing and rejoicing.

Bodhi Day - Bodhi Day is usually observed December 8th or the Sunday preceding it. It celebrates the day of Prince Siddhartha Guatama's realization and presentation to his fellow seekers of the Four Noble Truths. From that point forward, he was referred to as the Buddha, the enlightened one. Buddhists celebrate by stringing colored lights representing the numerous pathways to enlightenment, feasting on traditional foods and
greeting each other with "Budu Saranai!" which loosely translated means, "May the serenity of the Buddha's be yours!"

When preparing for holiday festivities, ask your employees for input during the planning process. Encourage them to bring in decorations, and to share foods and holiday traditions. Be sensitive to any fasting, dietary restrictions or scheduling conflicts due to religious observance, prior to planning. Don't forget to offer vegetarian alternatives.

Make all holiday activities voluntary. Not all employees may feel comfortable celebrating, or may not be able to join in according to religious beliefs. Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, do not celebrate holidays. Non-participation should not be viewed negatively.

It is recommended that office decorating guidelines be established ahead of time. Singing snowmen or paper garland that hangs precariously close to a light bulb may prove to be more distracting, and/or dangerous, than festive. Remember, your organization can be held liable for injuries that occur on your property or at your sponsored functions. If you are planning on serving alcoholic beverages at your holiday party, it is wise to have designated drivers or a shuttle service in place prior to the festivities.

In addition, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) suggests that employers have a cash, rather than open, bar for alcoholic beverages, to help cut back on the potential alcohol intake of partygoers. Also, be sure to provide plenty of fun seasonal drinks, such as non-alcoholic eggnog and hot apple cider, in addition to soft drinks and juices.

Once your plans are in place, be sure to enjoy this time of year. Providing your employees with the opportunity to mix and mingle is a wonderful way to increase workplace camaraderie. When handled with sensitivity and respect, workplace festivities can result in an uplifting combination of unity, cultural understanding, and joy for your team, which is truly a celebration of the spirit of the season.

Source: Society for Human Resource Management. Submitted by Fernán R. Cepero, Vice President, Human Resources for the YMCA of Greater Rochester.


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