It is that time of year when most of us use the greeting “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Holidays,” or “Season’s Greetings.” Some ask, which one is politically correct in my work environment? The answer depends completely upon the cultural or religious diversity in your work environment. However, with that being said, employers must be cautious about holiday greetings and celebrations, if for no other reason than to comply with both federal and state laws. They should be careful to not violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on various protected classes, including religion, national origin and race, to name a few.
Our society has changed over the last 50 years when it comes to the traditional celebrations surrounding December 25th. Some people view the day as a time to commemorate the birth of Christ, while others celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Ramadan. Others don’t celebrate anything at all and view it as a winter holiday. Employers often find that these differing views conflict in the workplace. Managing the diversity is always a challenge. However, an employer’s first priority should be to comply with the law. The law states that employers must accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs, practices and observances if the beliefs are sincerely held and the accommodation poses no undue hardship on a company’s operations. They must also allow religious expression as they would allow other types of non-religious personal expression.
What is undue hardship? Courts have found that employee’s who say, “Merry Christmas” have not placed an undue hardship on the company’s clients or other employees. They determined that when interactions are fleeting and spontaneous and the employee isn’t attempting to proselytize to others, allowing the statement is not an undue hardship. General resentment from other employees is also not an undue hardship. However, with that being said, if one employee finds the statement to be offensive, he/she should ask the offending employee to refrain from using the “Merry Christmas” greeting in their interactions. In general, appreciating diversity in the workplace only leads to positive employee interactions.
On the other side, employers cannot also require employees to greet others with “Merry Christmas.” Nor may they require employees to participate in religious activities within their organizations. Employers who do project a religious environment should never expect their employees to hold the same views. Thus, all holiday activities should be inclusive of everyone’s beliefs.
Employers should never assume that every employee celebrates holidays in the same manner. Allow multicultural events that encourage employees to share their cultural background through dress, food, stories, music and games. Employers should emphasize openness to inclusion in their work environment with a strong desire for all to be accepting and open to learning about other cultures and their holidays.
So, whether your employees say, “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Holidays,” or “Season’s Greetings,” make sure that everyone is feeling included. While it may feel safe to have employees greet others with “Happy Holidays,” or “Season’s Greetings,” know that it is not completely out of line for them to express themselves by saying, “Merry Christmas.”
Written By: Kristen Shingleton Deutsch, M.B.A., CCP
President, New Focus HR LLC