Illustration of five people dancing in a conga line in front of a green background with snowflakes and streamers.

aleutie / Adobe Stock

How to make your office holiday party more inclusive

Your guide to navigating Christmas at work with respect for those who don’t celebrate the season

I’d never really thought hard about how we celebrate the holidays at the office—until I was asked to join my team’s events committee. As a Christmas celebrator, I’m naturally well-versed in December office traditions: the baked goods, the Secret Santa, the abundance of tinsel. But now that I’m co-in-charge of our office festivities, I’ve started thinking about how to approach this time of year in a multicultural workplace.

Should there be Christmas carols at the party? Should we consider other December holidays when brainstorming activities? Is it OK to decorate common spaces, or should we just stick to our desks? Most of all, how can we ensure our holiday celebrations are inclusive?

Illustration of a santa hat and musical note in front of a green background decorated in snowflakes

Of course, you can simply go neutral—no Christmas-themed anything. But even if you cut out the word “Christmas,” it’s no secret that “holiday” parties still revolve around the 25th.

To help relieve my party-planning angst, I asked Michael Bach, CEO of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, what he thinks. Bach, whose organization works with employers addressing issues of inclusion in the workplace, has tackled the question of Christmas in the office many times.

“You can’t be a Christmas denier,” he says. “The season is Christmas, but it’s also important to recognize the many other holidays that fall within that time frame.” While he doesn’t think companies should go full-on Christmas, Bach also doesn’t think a neutral celebration is the way to go. “There’s such a fear of offending anybody that companies end up just having these generic celebrations, and it misses the point,” he says. “I think employers should hold celebrations that recognize the diversity within their organization.”

Avoiding the season doesn’t suddenly make our “holiday” activities more inclusive of other traditions. It just makes them less explicitly about one tradition. But is it truly inclusive to incorporate Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, or is that just playing things “PC”?

“It’s PC if it’s just a checkmark,” says Rachel Crowe, manager of Learning and Inclusive Workplaces at the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC), an agency funded by United Way. “But if you approach it as, ‘You’re my colleague, I care about you, I want to know more about this holiday that you celebrate and why it’s important to you and how we can support you,’ that comes from a very different place.”

illustration of a party hat and maracas in front of a green background with snowflakes.

Crowe, who works with organizations in the GTA to make workplaces more inclusive all year round, recommends asking colleagues how they want their own faiths, holidays and cultural traditions recognized—and not just in December. She cautions against jamming other traditions into a Christmas-shaped celebration in the name of inclusivity.

“The Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, is actually far more important than Hanukkah,” she says. But since Rosh Hashanah is in the fall, it’s not as easy to slot into a calendar based on Christian traditions. “Everyone who isn’t Jewish thinks about Hanukkah because it’s been tied to Christmas celebrations.”

Crowe says it’s important to ensure any holiday or event-planning committees are made up of a diverse group of people who practice a variety of traditions—a strategy she’s seen succeed at TRIEC.

“We have a very diverse staff and people from all different backgrounds are on the holiday planning committee,” she says. “Yes, at the heart of it, it’s still a Christmas party, but if you have a diverse group of people involved and they’re making the decisions, it naturally becomes more inclusive.”

One of TRIEC’s holiday committee members, Rania Younes, doesn’t celebrate Christmas, but had fun planning her office’s holiday party—it was religiously generic, yet still celebratory. “You’re inviting everyone to look back at a year of hard work,” she says. “In a work context, that’s what the holiday party has been for me.”

But even at more of an “end-of-year” party, some colleagues might still want to incorporate their holiday traditions. “The key is just to ask everyone and see what their preferences are,” Younes says. “It really depends on your team and on the comfort level of everyone involved.”

Sign up for The Good News Letter to get more stories like this in your inbox every Saturday.