Photo: Jason Todd/Getty Photo: Jason Todd/Getty

Parties. Gift exchanges. Staff luncheons. This is the time of year when organizations across Canada take time out to celebrate the season and rejoice in a bit of holiday-themed workplace camaraderie.

But in many cases, those celebrations have taken on a different tone and feel in recent years. Despite diligent efforts by companies to celebrate this festive time of year in a culturally-inclusive and -sensitive way, many employers continue to struggle with the challenge, often resulting in a kind of politically-correct paralysis.

Many CEOs have worked diligently to make their holiday parties more inclusive of other cultures and religions. That’s a good thing. Others have done away with these celebrations altogether for fear of offending to the point where they might provoke complaints under human rights legislation. While understandable, the latter approach is an unnecessary overreaction because end-of-year events don’t have to cater to any one specific culture or religion. They can be framed as a coming together of all employees, an opportunity for an employer to recognize a year of hard work and to look forward to continued, shared success.

It’s worth noting that there is no law restricting the celebration of any holiday, religious or otherwise, in the workplace. When it comes to introducing a Christmas tree, a menorah, hanging decorations, or other yuletide adornments, legislators and the courts have remained largely silent on the issue.

Human rights legislation across provinces does call for the reasonable accommodation of employee religious needs, but only to the point of causing undue hardship for the employer—a common test being whether the provision of paid religious holiday leave would create a significant financial burden on the business.

My recommendation when it comes to holiday celebrations: be sensitive to the composition of your workforce and try to recognize the many religions represented across your organization. A strong cohort of your employees (perhaps even a majority) likely are not Christian and may not celebrate Christmas—particularly if your company is based in any one of Canada’s major urban centres. That means you have an opportunity to make the festivities about more than one religion or culture. Doing so is a great way to bring employees together and celebrate the season without being exclusionary.

If your organization is based outside of one of Canada’s major urban centres and your workforce is less diverse this may seem like less of a concern, but I still urge you to err on the side of caution and keep decorations or celebrations culture- or religion-neutral. In other words, trade the mangers and angels for snowflakes and candy canes.

As for initiatives such as Secret Santa gift exchanges, these can also be fun without being culturally insensitive—particularly given the fact that many cultures have a gift-giving tradition at some point on the calendar.

If you want to celebrate a great year gone by with a gift exchange, invite employees to take part in the event, but don’t make it mandatory. Those who choose to participate can opt in, while those who don’t—for religious, cultural or other reasons—can take a pass. Also be sure to remind employees that standard workplace policies still apply when exchanging gifts. That means no presents that are offensive, disrespectful, or in any way breach employee rules of conduct.

With that in mind, feel free to display a menorah for Hanukkah, roll out a Mkeka for Kwanzaa, trim a Christmas tree or acknowledge the various other cultures represented across your employee base. Just remember that inclusiveness and engagement should be your organization’s focus throughout the holidays.

Laura Williams is an employment lawyer and founder of Williams HR Law in Markham, Ont. She has more than 15 years experience providing proactive solutions to employers aimed at reducing workplace exposures to liability and costs that result from ineffective and non-compliant workplace practices.

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How are you celebrating the holidays at work this year? Let us know by commenting below.

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