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How Companies Can Celebrate the Holidays Inclusively This Season

When planning for the holidays, it’s important for companies to practice true inclusion by making sure that all celebrations, cultures and faiths are accurately represented.

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While the holidays are a time of joy and cheer, office holiday celebrations often make employees feel excluded and left out. Certain holidays are favored during this time of year, but the reality is between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, there are numerous religious and secular holidays that occur. This year some of those holidays include Hanukkah (November 28 to December 6), Bodhi Day (December 8), and Kwanzaa (December 26 to January 1), among others.  

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When planning for the holidays, it’s important for companies to practice true inclusion by making sure that all celebrations, cultures and faiths are accurately represented. Whether cultural or faith-based, holidays are a window into what’s important to each employee, as the holidays they celebrate are an expression of their values. 

If companies want to build a culture where employees can bring their full selves to work, it’s important for them to be aware of which holidays are meaningful to their employees and how they celebrate them. Not doing so could have far-reaching negative impacts on employee engagement, productivity, culture and overall company performance. 

Here are some simple ways companies can celebrate the holidays while embracing every employee’s unique background, culture and faith. 

1. Ask Employees What Holidays They Celebrate and How

Faith and culture can be very personal, so the best way to know is to ask. A simple way to do so is by including a few questions about holiday celebrations and how they celebrate them into your onboarding process and check for changes. Consult with an HR or legal professional to make sure you include appropriate questions. Most importantly, communicate to employees that it is optional to disclose this information as some might not be comfortable sharing. 

For those that are willing to share, consider using the holiday season to spotlight employees and their holiday traditions. Include a blurb on their holiday celebrations in company newsletters, internal communications or on social media, so others can learn about their special traditions and gain awareness of other cultures and religions. 

2. Make the Holidays Nonspecific

An easy switch is changing “Christmas” to “holiday” to make it inclusive of every celebration. Managers should also encourage employees to wish folks “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas.” Another approach is to plan a holiday party around the season, like a “winter wonderland” or “snowflake soiree” theme. Also, consider putting up nonspecific holiday decor. If you want to expand decor to be inclusive of all the holidays your employees celebrate, host a decoration day and have team members bring in decorations from their faith and culture. Include an educational card next to each decoration so employees can learn more about each tradition. 

3. Institute a Diverse Planning Committee

To ensure all cultures and beliefs are represented and included, put in place a diverse planning committee and involve people with varying backgrounds to help with the holiday planning, coordination and implementation. Other than core members, like DEI or human resources staff, consider staggering the committee’s membership terms to allow for new employees and ideas as part of the committee. Lastly, similar to ERGs, make sure this group is compensated for their participation on this committee, as it is extra work for members and shows that inclusion is a top priority of the organization.

4. Watch the Calendar

Many different important cultural holidays happen during the end of the year—not just in December. When picking a date for your holiday or end-of-year party, make sure to consult an interfaith calendar to avoid any scheduling mistakes and ensure you’re not scheduling on a holiday. Also, create a multicultural calendar that notes all the holidays your employees celebrate, so everyone can reference it and be mindful of those dates. 

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5.  Offer Floating Time Off for Holidays

To accommodate holidays and cultural observances throughout the year, consider giving employees floating holidays so they can take time off for cultural or religious events that are meaningful to them. Instead of having a set holiday calendar, this ensures that every employee can take time off to celebrate or observe holidays without worrying about using their paid time off.

6. Be Mindful of Food and Beverages

During the holiday celebrations, make sure to provide different food and beverage options that accommodate all preferences and restrictions. For example, make sure you’re providing food that meets employees’ kosher, halal or vegetarian needs. Placement of the food is also key, as it may be offensive for some to see their dishes next to certain meats. Consider using holiday celebrations as an avenue for learning and sharing traditions, like asking each employee to bring a traditional cultural or family dish to share at a team potluck and discuss the story behind the dish. 

Additionally, some people might not drink alcohol due to religion or other beliefs. Consider hosting holiday events that are alcohol-free, and be mindful of the venue you choose. For example, having a holiday party at a bar may make employees who don’t drink feel uncomfortable. To better accommodate those who would like to drink and those who don’t, consider using two different spaces at your venue, where one space has alcohol-free beverages and the second serves alcohol. Another consideration is to host a “progressive dinner”-like event, where different food selections and drinks are served at different destinations, and employees can choose whether to “progress” to the next event, if alcoholic drinks are being served.

7. Keep Holiday Celebrations Optional

Some employees may not want to celebrate the holidays at all, so be sure to keep holiday celebrations optional. Remind employees that it is their choice whether or not to participate, and company leadership should make it clear that attendance is not required. Also, be mindful that holiday celebrations may be difficult for employees coping with depression or grieving the loss of a loved one. Be sure to check in with them regularly to see what support they may need during the holiday season. 

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8. Engage DEI Consultants and Industry Experts

DEI experts can help guide company leaders on how to celebrate the holidays inclusively. In addition to consulting on how to celebrate holidays inclusively, DEI experts can assist in creating more equitable and inclusive workplaces year around. Specifically, they can identify hidden or systemic barriers that prevent an inclusive and equitable environment for a variety of backgrounds by conducting workplace equity audits and helping companies take the time to diagnose these issues before jumping straight to training. When armed with data, companies can begin tackling systemic barriers and issues and work towards building long-term sustainable and measurable goals that go well beyond inclusion during the holiday season.  

Star Carter is the cofounder, COO and general counsel at Kanarys.

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