Ask the White Guy: Does Diversity Mean Giving Up Holiday Celebrations

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

Q: Can you give me suggestions of how you can be business appropriate during the holidays without excluding people who may not celebrate the holiday … or people who do celebrate it as a religious holiday Recently, I was asked to participate in an activity to create holiday cards with hand-drawn artwork that we would send out to our internal business customers—however, the instructions prohibited symbols of Christmas, including trees, wreaths, holly, etc. (although not stated, I would assume this applies to menorahs and Kwanzaa symbols as well). Does diversity and inclusion have to be a zero-sum game where in order to include everyone almost everyone else has to be excluded

A: I think it’s important that my audience understands you don’t work at an elementary school, which is what first came to my mind when I read what you were told to do with your time. Let’s just say you work for a huge, world-renowned, technologically oriented company with global business interests.

The “holiday” we all try to dance around in this country is Christmas. Have you ever seen the bumper sticker “Keep Christ in Christmas” I think it makes a lot of sense for Christians to want to keep Christ in Christmas. I’d think that Jewish people want to keep Moses in Yom Kippur, Muslims want to keep the Quran in Ramadan, and Hindus want to keep Saraswati in Vasant Panchami. I could go on, but the point is these things are important to people. Diversity, as it applies to business, is the practice of getting along with people. Respect is central to building relationships—and most religions don’t have a big holiday toward the end of December.

So how do you celebrate “the holidays” in the United States

I think companies have two choices: respectful nonobservance or inclusive observance with forethought and accuracy.

Respectful nonobservance means you forego celebrations, but close for critical holidays that reflect your employee population. For example, most companies in the United States would be wise to close on Christmas because 76 percent of Americans call themselves Christian. It is a good idea to assess your employee’s religious beliefs because it goes a long way not to schedule a business lunch during Ramadan or an important meeting during Yom Kippur. You can’t close for every holiday, but you could train and empower managers to do the right thing. For example, imagine how good you’d feel if you were a Christian working in India and your Hindu boss came to you and said, “I’m sure you’ll want to be home on Dec. 25, please take the day on the company.” Keep in mind that the ultimate goal of these culturally competent practices is to improve engagement—which boosts productivity and reduces regrettable loss.

Inclusive observance means you celebrate holidays with equal emphasis. It’s a lot of responsibility, but if you do business globally or have a particularly diverse workforce, this is highly educational and should be a fun way for people to learn and celebrate together. Building awareness in this manner can also help with employee and customer relationships.

Where I think companies run into trouble is to emphasize one religion to the practical exclusion of all others (especially when it benefits the majority), or to try to force nonsensical equivalencies, such as Christmas and Hanukkah (which have absolutely nothing to do with one another). I also think people become resentful when they’re asked to “celebrate the holidays” in a sanitized fashion. All the non-Christians know exactly what the card (in your case) is celebrating and all the Christians resent having to disregard their religious symbols. Nobody is happy—and “diversity” gets blamed for foolish decisions.

In the case of your company, I’ve seen your headquarters decorated with what I would describe as ostentatious Christmas displays in the public spaces—giant Christmas trees, big fake gifts, enormous strands of garland. I’ve never seen equivalent displays for any other religion. So I think it’s silly to receive a “holiday” card in December at your company without any of the symbols that are so prominently displayed at headquarters. I don’t blame you for feeling irritated. My advice for your company, given its global reach, is to have a merry Christmas! And a good Rosh Hashanah! And a delicious Eid al-Fitr! And a festive Holi!

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