Six Simple Steps to Avoid the December Dilemma

By Joyce Dubensky, CEO, Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding


The “December Dilemma” is coming. It’s that time of the year between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, when multiple religious (and secular) holidays collide. It’s a time for celebration but also a time when people with good intentions often find themselves caught in the middle of toxic miscommunications and unintended conflicts. But this doesn’t have to happen to you.

Here are six simple steps for diversity and inclusion and HR managers to master the December Dilemma this year:

1. Accept the challenge, take a deep breath, and get started.

Pretending that the December Dilemma doesn’t exist won’t make it go away. And though it may not be possible to satisfy every employee this time of year, there are better practices that companies can follow. Starting off with inclusive intentions and full recognition that there are many ways people celebrate and do not celebrate is probably the best foundation for developing your approach to the “December Dilemma.”

2. If you don’t know, then ask!

Asking questions about personal observances of faith can sometimes be uncomfortable—but asking is a great way to learn what is important to your colleagues. Often, you’ll learn something about them that you can’t learn from Wikipedia. So start by sharing how you feel up front. For example, say something like, “I feel as if I should know this by now, but do you need to take time to celebrate your holidays in any way” You’re always better off asking a question rather than making an assumption.

3. Don’t be afraid to say “Merry Christmas.”

Yes, holiday celebrations should be inclusive. But being inclusive does not have to mean that all communications around the holidays should be so religion-neutral that we ignore what is important to people with whom we work. If you know a coworker celebrates Christmas, you don’t need to avoid acknowledging her holiday just to be “politically correct.” Using the appropriate holiday greeting—whether it’s around Christmas, Ramadan, Diwali or any other holiday—is a simple but effective way of demonstrating respect. (But remember, just because you know someone is Christian does not mean that he or she celebrates Christmas!)

4. Don’t split hairs trying to decipher what’s “cultural” and what’s “religious.”

Companies often come to us with questions about programming. They’d like their professional-development trainings to be religion-neutral, while still educating employees about the cultural significance of Diwali, for instance. But what’s the point Culture and religion are so often intertwined, it may just lead to more confusion. It can also lead to unintended exclusion. When companies use this distinction to educate employees about holidays that are less familiar in the United States, like Diwali, they often end up ignoring better-known holidays like Christmas. In reality, all holidays have both cultural and religious components. As long as your programming is not promoting or denigrating a religious or nonreligious tradition, is open to all employees regardless of their religious background, and helps to contribute to your bottom-line business goals—there’s no need to steer clear of religion.

5. Call the party what it is.

Nationwide, companies have moved toward naming the “Christmas” party a “holiday” party instead. Other companies have moved even further away from the idea by hosting “employee appreciation” or “end-of-year” celebrations. When you start planning, make sure your office celebration will be inclusive (and make sure it contributes to bottom-line business goals). But remember: simply changing the name of a party isn’t enough. Make sure the (inclusive) name accurately matches what the party will look like. If there’s a Christmas tree, wrapped gifts, and a Santa Claus, then is your party really an “end-of-year” celebration Take the time to think about your company’s goals for its office party. Is there an educational element Is it part of a community partnership Or is it just what the company has always done in December As you are figuring this out, remember that there are ways to celebrate employees that don’t involve the holidays at all—for example, consider holding a team-building event in January.

6. Don’t cram your acknowledgement of all religious traditions into December.

There are several holidays from a variety of traditions that frequently fall in the month of December—but it’s important to remember that other times of the year also hold significance, for individuals of all faiths (including Christianity). Acknowledging those other celebrations throughout the year is key to creating a truly inclusive work environment.

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