Ask the Employee Assistance Program: Holiday Parties

The Department of Enterprise Services’ Employee Assistance Program publishes a monthly Q&A column in its Frontline newsletter for supervisors. The following is an excerpt from the December Issue. You can read the full newsletter and subscribe to it here.

office workers sitting at tables


The holiday season seems like a good opportunity to host a party for appreciation and teambuilding, but I don’t want to assume that all employees celebrate Christmas. Do you have advice on how I can plan an inclusive holiday celebration?


You’re right to assume that not everyone celebrates Christmas. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, 10% of the U.S. population does not, and less than half celebrate it as a religious holiday. In Washington State, 4 out of every 10 people identify as something other than Christian. During the winter months, multiple religions and cultures observe important holidays. It’s not enough to simply rename a Christmas party as a “holiday” party, without recognizing religious diversity and supporting inclusion in the workplace. Do you know which holidays the employees in your workgroup celebrate, and how? This season, consider getting to know what’s important to your team members. Don’t risk placing them in a difficult situation where they feel obligated to attend an event or recognize a holiday that compromises their beliefs or leads them to feel not seen or valued.
Instead, ask employees about their cultural and religious preferences and practices, and show respect and support by learning more about and acknowledging their holidays. Employees will likely appreciate the thoughtfulness of you sharing a greeting for the holiday they observe—“Ramadan Mubarak” to a Muslim coworker during this sacred month, “Yom Tov” to a Jewish colleague observing Yom Kippur, and yes, “Merry Christmas” to the Christians in your workgroup during the last weeks of December and early January. Note that the dates of many religious observances change from year to year: a quick internet search will allow you to put reminders on your calendar for dates that are important to your coworkers, or in Outlook, simply go to File>Options>Calendar and click add holidays.
If your end goal is employee celebration, appreciation, and teambuilding, here are some other actions you can take around the holiday season: 1) Provide opportunities for employees to learn about various cultures and holiday celebrations, or to share about their own cultures, through displays or at events. 2) At celebrations, make sure foods, decorations, and activities are not associated with only one particular religion (the colors of Hanukkah are blue and white, and for Kwanzaa, black, red, and green). 3) Instead of a holiday party, have an end-of-year celebration of accomplishments and contributions. 4) When planning an event or party, be mindful not to schedule it on a day when someone might be fasting or observing a holy day. 5) Make sure to accommodate schedules for religious holidays – it’s the law.
Remember, respecting diversity doesn’t mean ignoring religious celebrations. Employee engagement increases when employees feel safe and encouraged to bring their whole selves to work and feel valued for who they are, not just what they do.