Holiday Party Planning in the Diverse Workplace

Holiday Party Planning in the Diverse Workplace

Holiday party planning can get dicey when companies add diversity to their merrymaking mix. How do you appeal to all without leaving someone out in the cold?

"Put the emphasis on celebrating," advises workplace diversity consultant Sondra Thiederman, PhD, author of Making Diversity Work, founder of Cross-Cultural Communications and a Monster contributing writer. The key: "Focus more on what we share and less on where we differ."

Thiederman says trying to plan a holiday party that recognizes every culture and religion is just inviting failure. "The more you try to please members of every single group, the greater danger you are of deeply offending someone left out," she says. "Go for neutrality, not specificity."

Holiday Party-Planning Tips

  • Include a Welcome Statement: Encourage the CEO, president or regional manager -- whoever's hosting the bash -- to recognize the company's diversity from the microphone. "Say, ‘Look at the diversity in this room. Not only are we celebrating the holiday season and the end of the year and a job well done, but the fact that we're all together in this room,'" Thiederman suggests.
  • Keep Decor Nonspecific: Sorry, Santa -- it's a "holiday party" now. But that doesn't mean it has to be somber. Deck the halls with neutral symbols such as flowers, balloons, candles and snowflakes. Don't try to do the Christmas tree and the menorah and symbols from every culture.
  • Accommodate Diverse Palates: Got tofu? It's not as flaky as carnivores may think. Vegetarian choices are a safe -- and yummy -- way to accommodate diverse dietary needs and beliefs. "The respectful way to hold a banquet is to offer vegetarian and nonvegetarian choices," says Thiederman.
  • Appeal to Everyone with Golden Oldies: Tunes can be tough, as individuals within families (let alone companies and cultures) can have vastly different tastes. Anything too genre- or culture-specific may strike a sour note. To make everyone happy, Thiederman suggests going back in time. "Try historical music, the big bands and sounds of the '40s. It's less of a hot button than if you play rap, and have no Christmas carols."
  • Invite the Family: "One mistake companies make is inviting people for evening celebrations and not including the entire family," says Thiederman. "Everybody has family in common." Daytime and weekend events like picnics may have the widest appeal. Remember that in some cultures, the concept of family may include not just spouses and kids but the extended family, too. Consider how child care and transportation issues may affect whether employees attend.

Key Insight: ‘Kinship Groups' Define What We Share

Celebrations can create a "kinship group" with coworkers from other cultures. "Get everyone together in a room to be light and buoyant and to celebrate without using any individual [religious or cultural] symbols," suggests Theiderman.

A celebration becomes a unifying activity, not one that highlights differences. You can use it to expand your own "kinship group." Don't just hang with your usual, comfortable clique. Make an effort to talk to a coworker you may have avoided because of perceived cultural barriers. You do have things in common: a shared work ethic, values or family concerns.

Quick Tip: Don't Mix Religion with Business Celebrations

"Holiday-time diversity used to mean just adding a Hanukkah menorah to the decorations," says Michael Hyter, president and CEO of diversity and inclusion consultant Novations/J. Howard & Associates, based in Boston. "Employers must be sensitive to the religious beliefs of their employees and create more flexible celebrations to include all of them."

Hyter offers holiday party planners these suggestions:

  • Avoid Secret Santa and anonymous employee gift exchanges. An innocent stocking stuffer could inadvertently cause discomfort or offense (e.g., a Muslim receiving a Christmas angel).
  • Don't focus just on Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. These can conflict with Ramadan or Diwali.
  • Alcohol can make some Christians and non-Christians uncomfortable. Offer alternatives.
  • Get wide input from your employees on holiday planning. Ask as many groups as possible.
  • Allow employees to opt out of company holiday events without penalty or negative connotation.
  • Let non-Christian employees offer company-sanctioned alternatives, but don't make them mandatory.

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