Harassment Free Holidays

Over the last few years, I have found it interesting to watch businesses, especially retailers, try to celebrate this time of year without overtly mentioning any specific holiday by name. In my mind that approach lumps everything together and takes away the significance of each. Why not try to honor and respect the uniqueness of each of the holidays as well as the employees who celebrate them?

Celebrate Diversity

By acknowledging that your employees and customers observe one or more of these holidays, you’re honoring them. Although I’ve heard the argument that when you post a sign that says “Merry Christmas,” you offend everyone that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, I’ve always found that difficult to believe. Let’s give the general population more credit than that. It’s only when you acknowledge Christmas and ignore other holidays like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa that you run into trouble.

I’ve also heard people complain in the past that acknowledging another’s holiday custom suggests that you’re demeaning your own. That’s like saying if I tell you “I like your new haircut,” I’m saying, “I don’t like the way I look.” Again, I give all of us a lot more credit. That might be a bit simplistic, but you get the idea.

Does that mean you should wish every one of your customers a “Merry Christmas,” or a “Happy Hanukkah,” regardless of what they observe? Of course not. You may not know your customers that well. Unless it's clear, or your know, what they celebrate, a sincere “Happy Holidays” should cover it.

But your employees are different. You, and every one on your team should know who observes which holiday. It’s part of the human connection that is so important to building a high-performing team. Which employees celebrate Christmas?  Or Hanukkah? Do you have employees who celebrate Kwanzaa?  Or The Prophet's Birthday (Milad un Nabi as it is commonly referred to in Muslim culture)?   

Your employees are people first and workers second. And if you don’t know what religious holidays and customs they observe, take some time to find out.

A Time for Understanding

The time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is a busy time for people. For many, it’s filled with the religious and cultural celebrations important to them, increased visits with family, parties and other social engagements, an increased workload, and added financial obligations. It can be busy and stressful. The last thing any manager needs is misunderstandings that arise because of a lack of knowledge about one another’s customs or beliefs.

Respecting another’s customs and beliefs begins with understanding them. Here are a few ideas for kicking off the holiday season with understanding:

  • Open a staff meeting with a discussion about the upcoming holiday season
    • Business changes, needs, and expectations
    • The different holidays
    • Personal celebration plans
    • Ask your employees to share a favorite holiday memory or custom
  • Suggest that the team decorate the office, store, or break room in the traditional holiday colors of each holiday.  Ask the employees who celebrate each particular holiday to take the lead.  Of course, if you have employees who don't want to publicly celebrate their holiday by decorating, that's okay too.
  • Have a contest
    • Post employee photos and holiday memories/stories and see who can match the most people to the stories
    • Post trivia questions on the various holidays (if employees seem open to the idea)
  • Set up the guidelines for a gift exchange, or select a charity to support in lieu of a gift exchange
  • Have a pot-luck lunch
    • Ask employees to bring favorite traditional dishes to pass

Everyone, including you, is busier than usual during this time of year. By adding a little fun and creating a means for understanding one another better, you can help release tension, improve morale and increase productivity. It's important to make sure that everyone is comfortable with the ways in which you celebrate.  You don't want to assign more "work" or minimize a holiday with trivia, for example, when it is sacred to an employee. The idea is the increase awareness and understanding about the different holidays to help employees connect on a more personal level.  Doing so also helps eliminiate disrespect or harassment based on religion and race.  But you can't stop there.

Sexual Harassment

It’s important to remember that the holiday season presents an increased potential for sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s common for businesses to have parties, luncheons, or dinners to celebrate the holiday season, the end of a quarter, or the year-end. And whether they are in a break room, a catered banquet hall, the local tavern, or a fancy restaurant, they are work functions.

As the manager, you set the tone. If you like to be the life of the party, go for it. Just dance on the tables as if your grandmother were sitting there cheering you on. It’s called the Grandma filter.

The Grandma Filter

You can and should be yourself at work and work functions. Just filter what you do or what you say with the idea that your Grandma is with you. She is right there, standing with you across from the appetizers while you chat with an attractive colleague. She is seated next to you at the dinner table while you’re talking to your employees about your social life.

Basically the Grandma filter is a reminder to ask yourself, “Would I say this, do this, show this, or send this if my Grandma were here?” If the answer is no, don’t say it or do it.

The Business Filter

Another filter that you can use to help remind you to keep your comments and actions respectful at upcoming holiday parties and other work functions is the business filter. The business filter will help you refrain from asking inappropriate personal questions or talking about intimate subjects. Basically, the business filter is a reminder that “if it’s not about business, it’s none of your business.”

That doesn’t mean you should avoid connecting with your employees. Connecting with the people who work with you is about building a respectful work relationship. It’s getting to know your employee as a person instead of just a worker. It’s knowing that Joe is dating Terri and that they are going out to dinner to celebrate their first year together. Connecting with your employees is about business. It builds morale and increases productivity.

The business filter is a reminder that intimate details of your employees’ lives are not about business and therefore are none of your business. You wouldn’t, for example, ask Joe for details about what he and Terri did to celebrate their anniversary after dinner. Such a conversation is beyond the scope of a respectful working relationship. And it goes both ways. If you overhear Joe sharing personal details about his relationship with Terri, it’s time to step in and explain that conversations that are sexual in nature don’t belong at work.

A Time for Education and Respect

Setting the tone will help you create and maintain a respectful and harassment-free work environment. But recognize that there are additional challenges this time of year. Although work may be busier, the festiveness and anticipation of the holidays also prompts some employees to want to let loose.

I’m not suggesting that you conduct a sexual harassment prevention workshop the afternoon of your work party or that you distribute information about the Grandma filter and Business filter on the way into the restaurant. But there are things you can do to help ensure that your employees treat one another with respect during this holiday season:

Tell employees that parties and the festive nature of the holiday season may increase the potential for inappropriate behaviors from customers, vendors, and employees. Remind them that any behaviors that are sexual in nature will not be tolerated.

Remind employees that they should speak up if a customer, vendor, or employee makes them feel uncomfortable.

Remind employees that even though your party is off-site it is still a work function.

This holiday season, seize the opportunity to strengthen your team by learning about one another’s customs. Celebrate the diversity of your employees and the holidays. Focus on ensuring your workplace and work functions are harassment-free and respectful. Most of all, have fun! Enjoy the season and each other.

Happy Holidays from our company to yours.

Michele Eby works for Media Partners as an instructional designer. She has worked in the training and development field for more than 15 years. Media Partners’ sexual harassment prevention training program “Let’s Get Honest” was the source for this article.