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Workplace Inclusion is Coming to Town

by Jessica Lawmaster

Let me start this off with this disclaimer: It is mid-November, and my family has already watched Home Alone and listened to Christmas music while baking cookies. I love celebrating Christmas. I have very special holiday childhood memories and am now creating special traditions with my own kids. I am not a Grinch, okay?

All that being said, can we normalize NOT centering Christian holidays for workplace celebrations, traditions, and policies?

Wait, did I just declare a war on Christmas…or was it just an attempt at being more inclusive?

If you are operating in a workplace – remote or in-person – you may be wondering how to navigate the holidays in a way that feels inclusive of everyone. Or maybe you’ve never thought about it.

First, let’s talk about some important considerations that often get overlooked during the holiday hullabaloo.

Religion & Culture

In the US, Christian holidays are the default. Come December, public schools are managing behavior with Elf on the Shelf (true story here in Oklahoma), office gift exchanges are announced, and you can’t make it through a retail store without being told “Merry Christmas.” So what’s the problem with Christmas? The problem isn’t Christmas; the problem is assuming that everyone adores and celebrates Christmas.

At least 35% of Americans do not identify as Christian. Sure, many of these people may still celebrate Christmas without the religious aspects, but we can’t divorce the holiday from its religious roots. Additionally, fewer than half of Americans who celebrate Christmas do so primarily as a religious (rather than cultural) holiday. So even if we know someone celebrates Christmas, we cannot assume it is connected to their faith.

In many parts of the country (mine included) Christmas traditions are deeply intertwined with religious beliefs, texts, and imagery – in explicit and subtle ways. This is beautiful for those who identify as Christian but can feel imposing or alienating to those who do not.

For a deeper (and more informed) dive into the historical effects of wedding Christianity and religion with institutional policies and systems in the US, click here and here.

Trauma and Loss

Even for those who subscribe to the Christian faith and/or have historically celebrated Christmas, there are plenty of reasons why the holiday season may not be a happy one. The holidays can be particularly difficult for those who are grieving losses…death, divorce, jobs, and other life-altering changes. And let’s not forget that, across the globe, we have lost over five million people to COVID alone in the past two years.

For survivors of trauma, holidays can trigger difficult emotions and open up painful wounds. Gretchen Schmeltzer says, “Holidays are rituals. They are traditions. They are anniversaries. And if you have experienced significant loss or trauma, holidays are an archipelago of memory and loss. Holidays come embedded with reminders and triggers and explosions of memory.” Holidays can also be lonely and remind people of what or who they do not have.

Class Struggles

It’s no secret that Christmas is accompanied by a 3-month explosion of consumerism. For most who celebrate Christmas, access to financial resources has a major impact on the holiday experience – especially with the paramount focus on gifts. We all know this; we even set up systems so that families with financial struggles can be “adopted” or “sponsored” by more financially resourced families just so they can receive gifts. Children and employees return to school and work in the new year and are commonly asked to share about what gifts they received. Instagram feeds are lit up with all the Christmas morning bounty.

Additionally, working class jobs are less likely to enjoy paid time off during the holiday season (and sometimes expected to work more), thus impacting the time workers can spend with their families. Houseless community members remain houseless, and the jolt of “giving” that a few experience is short-lived.

Simply put, Christmas is a time that further amplifies class differences and systemic disadvantages.

Workplace Culture

At Kindred, we focus a lot on workplace culture; particularly, cultivating cultures of care and belonging. Organizational cultures are living and breathing – ever being shaped by those who are empowered to shape them. A workplace culture is largely made up of our everyday ways of being: our norms, our default modes, the things we don’t notice or talk about regularly.

As we think about holidays at work, here are some reminders about fostering a culture of belonging in your workplace:

  • Our culture impacts future employees as well as current ones. So, while we should be focusing on who is there now; we must also acknowledge that everything we do is a seed planted (for better or worse) for the future.

  • Our culture is defined by the norms we default to, without questioning. When we ask people to describe their culture, we always hear about the lovely things that people are intentional about. Those things matter, but our culture is largely defined by the things we don’t talk about.

  • Just because YOU feel a sense of belonging at work, doesn’t mean others do, too. You cannot project your experience onto others, and you certainly do not know how others are experiencing work based on how you are. We must create systems that routinely check in and bring accountability to our inclusion efforts.

  • Unless you are an explicitly faith-based organization, if your culture is only embracing or acknowledging cultural and religious traditions and beliefs of one faith, it isn’t inclusive. Period.

Here are some common questions that come up when we talk about holidays in the workplace.

How do we navigate holidays when we are aligned with government holidays, which center Christianity?

It is common to be closed when there are government closures. This can be helpful for parents and caregivers whose loved ones are home in need of care. Consider a simple shift in language. Rather than saying, “Our office is closed in observation of the following holidays…” consider the language, “Our office is closed in alignment with the following government and school closure dates…” You can still list the holidays and dates, but this slight shift in language does not imply that the organization or its employees are collectively in observance of said holidays.

What if everyone in our office celebrates Christmas?

Whether it’s “Happy Diwali,” “Merry Christmas,” or “Happy Hanukah,” it is a fine gesture to wish someone well when you know there is a specific holiday they are celebrating. If you know everyone in your office celebrates Christmas, you don’t have to avoid acknowledging that.

However, remember that the culture you are cultivating now has an impact on the culture of your future teammates. Building traditions and norms around a Christian holiday plant seeds and expectations for the future. Are you creating traditions with the intention and expectation to expand and evolve as you welcome new members to the team? Is there space to learn and hear from staff about what feels respectful each year? Or will you just celebrate now and figure out the rest later? Imagine being from a different faith or culture and joining a team not only being distinctly aware of being “different,” but also feeling the burden of disrupting traditions and customs that the team has grown to expect.

Our policies are rooted in Christian holidays, and we have to follow them.

I’m not sure who needs to hear this, but…policies can and should change and evolve over time. If you are not an explicitly faith-based organization, your policies should not be based on Christianity – or any faith at that.

This is America and Christmas is an American tradition.

When using “This is America” as a reason to opt out of efforts around inclusion, we perpetuate a White, euro-centric system that has historically excluded BIPOC, queer, immigrant, and disabled groups of people from leading, shaping, and participating in workplace norms and culture, among many other things. By saying “This is America” to limit diversity of ideas and practices, you reinforce the systemic parts of America that are oppressive and exclusive.

Also, just a reminder: an institution choosing not to observe a religious holiday has no bearing on an individual’s right or ability to observe that holiday on their own.

How do I know what my team feels comfortable with?

At Kindred, we always advocate “just ask them.” When navigating holidays, traditions, and cultural customs, ask your team what feels inclusive, meaningful, and appropriate to them. But here is an extra caveat to this advice: Center the margins. “Just ask them” should not lead you to defaulting to the majority. Listen to those who have been the most historically and systemically excluded from conversations and decisions. Recognize that it does not always feel safe for “the only one” from a particular group to speak up when their perspective differs from the majority’s perspective.

For example...if you have a team of 12 enthusiastic Christmas celebrators who want to deck the literal halls of your office and are holding the decorations in their arms during the meeting and ONE person who feels (for whatever reason) deeply uncomfortable with Christmas being imposed on them, do not put them on the spot and ask them to make the decision to cancel Christmas with everyone staring at them.

Be thoughtful and plan in advance. Explore your team’s preferences and perspectives throughout the year in a way that is authentic to your culture. For some it may be through dialogue at meetings, for others a peer-reviewed suggestion box, and for some an anonymous online survey.

Can’t we just celebrate all holidays?

Here’s the deal. It is a beautiful thing when there are safe, trusted workplaces that find ways to learn about and honor different religious and cultural traditions. And it is rare. What we often see is a workplace that attempts to “celebrate” different holidays and instead caricaturizes or stereotypes cultures and faiths that they do not understand. Or individual employees who represent minority faiths in the workplace are put in a fishbowl and expected to represent entire groups of people as though they are monolithic.

If your team has the trust and inclusive practices in place to create traditions that make space for different cultures and faiths to share, that’s great. Consider framing it as learning about one another’s traditions, rather than “celebrating” traditions. This creates more authentic space to deepen understanding rather than imposing practices on others and expecting them to partake in them.

It feels wrong to end the year without a celebration.

Then celebrate!!! There is so much to celebrate as a year ends and a new one begins. I imagine there are countless accomplishments to honor and affirmations to share as you reflect on the year. In fact, I hope all of you are finding ways to celebrate throughout the year. Celebrating successes (and lessons learned) is a meaningful way to shape your organization’s culture. The end of the year is a wonderful time to look back, reflect, celebrate, and cheer each other on for the year ahead.

In Summary

Leaders, I am not telling you what to do...because that's the point. Institutional leadership does not give us the right to dictate faith-based and cultural decisions and expectations for others. Here are some takeaways:

  • Don’t make assumptions about your employees’ experiences with and beliefs or preferences about holidays.

  • Co-create traditions and practices together – that serve you now and make space for new perspectives in the future.

  • Create safe ways to hear from all employees throughout the year, not just the loudest voices or majority.

  • Consider how your institution may inadvertently be perpetuating exclusionary practices that center only the dominant culture

In short, just don’t be weird about it. Be transparent and be human. Your thoughtfulness and intention around inclusion will go a long way. And if you screw up, take heart in knowing that you are not alone. Just take a breath, apologize, and commit to doing better next time.

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