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Workplace Culture, Religious Diversity, and Celebrating It All with Floating Holidays

Protecting the psychological safety of workers when it comes to religion and festive occasions

Jodie Sandell PHR and SHRM-CP
Consultant, project manager, writer, and process improver with over 15 years of HRM experience
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Watching a football game and contemplating my Halloween costume earlier this year, I was astounded by the (very early) commercial reminders that a slew of traditions and observed holidays were upon us. 

My mind went to Thanksgiving meal planning, Hanukkah songs, Christmas trees, Kwanzaa candles, and the fact that there are 26 different New Year’s Days around the world. And those are just the big holidays, or “the” holidays. In other words, the ones celebrated at work. 

That also got me thinking — when we talk about “the” holidays, aren’t we leaving a whole bunch of cultures, religions, and colleagues out? 

Annually, there are 10 federal holidays observed in the U.S., 10 statutory holidays in Mexico, 12 public holidays in South Africa, and 17 gazetted holidays in India, to name a few. What are we as HR professionals doing to ensure workers feel included in our festive efforts? Furthermore, are we creating an organizational culture around festive occasions where workers feel physiologically safe to take part, sit out, or voice their opinion about cultural and religious holidays?

This article addresses religious inclusivity in the workplace, juggling vacation days in a diverse team, and ensuring psychological safety during all of the holidays.

In This Article

Diversity in the U.S. Workforce

According to July 2021 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 18.9% of the total U.S. population is Hispanic (with about 61% of those being from Mexico). 

U.S. population census date per race

The same data indicates that the Black or African American alone population accounts for 13.6% of U.S. residents. And according to World Population Review, “Islam is the world’s second-largest religion, with over 1.9 billion followers.” Islam is also the world’s fastest-growing religion. PRRI data from 2021 shows 0.7% of Americans are Islamic (Muslim) believers. 

American population breakdown per religion in 2021

With such diverse backgrounds and important customs stemming from roots around the world, the way we, as human resources professionals, handle religious diversity and cultural traditions in the workplace is significant. How do we ensure an inclusive organization by making everyone's holidays work within our DEI and vacation policies?

In a recent survey conducted by the Direct Employers Association of their members, 57% of employer respondents indicated they do consider holidays in their DEI efforts. However, the list of holidays and observances most commonly awarded as paid days off still looks pretty mainstream traditional.

Statistics on holidays celebrated in organizations

As more companies recognize that hiring diverse teams makes for more productive and successful work, we are engaging more with colleagues who observe different customs and holidays. To avoid bias, microaggressions, and lack of equity, it is crucial that we are trained and knowledgeable about cultural diversity. Without attention to DEI, employees’ psychological safety may suffer.

More on Diversity:

100+ Must-Known Workplace Diversity Statistics

What is Psychological Safety?

“Psychological safety means an absence of interpersonal fear. When psychological safety is present, people are able to speak up with work-relevant content,” says Harvard’s Amy Edmondson who first coined this phrase in a 1999 paper.

So what does it look like when your employees feel psychologically unsafe?

If you’ve ever attended a collaborative meeting where not everyone had the opportunity to share their voice, you have likely witnessed a colleague feeling unsafe — like they could not bring their whole self to work. Members of your group likely have different communication styles. However, it is vital for group dynamics and productive work that all teammates either speak up for themselves or be called upon to share by the facilitator of the meeting.

Psychological safety is important as without employees’ sense of inclusion and belonging, candor is not enabled. And without candor, teams cannot accomplish honest discussions, hear diverse perspectives and achieve objective goals.

The Importance of DEI Around Religion

The holidays” is a loaded phrase! Historically in the workplace, “the” holiday has been Christmas. Offices adorn Christmas trees and encourage workers to decorate their cubes with wreaths and stockings; they invite workers to Christmas parties and ugly Christmas sweater competitions, and they organize Secret Santa gift exchanges.

Christmas Day is a federal holiday, and Christmas Eve is a day for which many organizations offer paid time off. Although paid holidays and celebrations are great, should our organizational observance be specific to religious holidays that don’t apply to everyone? What about including the traditions of those that don’t celebrate Christmas? How do employees feel about the company’s annual “Christmas party”? Is being invited the same as being included? Do they have a fair opportunity to say whether they feel included? 

Likely, if a person silently feels excluded from the organizational celebrations, the lack of opportunity to speak up and say so extends to work streams where you need their voice and collaboration. Hiring with a focus on DEI can’t stop after onboarding. Fostering equity, inclusion, and belonging must be ongoing.

According to the travel site Journeyz, an estimated 45% of the world’s population celebrates Christmas although only 31.2% of the population follows Christianity. Some organizations have gotten hip to Hanukkah since it is typically celebrated around Christmas time. And more recently, Kwanzaa was added to the Outlook holiday calendar, raising awareness of this week-long communal tribute to universal African heritage and culture. 

Beyond December, a variety of holidays sprinkle the calendar year: Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King Day, President’s Day, Cesar Chavez Day, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, Easter, Ramadan, Passover, Memorial Day, Juneteenth, U.S. Independence Day, Labor Day, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Dia de Los Muertos, Veterans Day and the 26 different New Year’s Days to name just a few (we could go on). 

Recognizing and honoring varied customs and days of importance in your organization means

  • Your whole team decides what the organizational celebratory calendar looks like
  • You respect their differences
  • You create a sense of belonging, and 
  • You support their psychological safety
A diverse team enjoying a festive lunch at work

What Constitutes Cultural and Religious DEI in the Workplace?

The ultimate show of respect and inclusion is engaging with employees. Ask for their honest opinions (whether related to their sense of inclusion or otherwise). Reflect on that feedback and move forward with policies, procedures, and practices that show that your organizational leadership listens and cares.

Asking your team what makes them feel safe and valued might be the most expeditious first step in the path to psychological safety. 

To do this, create an anonymous survey to ask questions like:

  • What holidays or traditions (religious or not) are important to you?
  • Do you feel supported by our organization in your ability to honor these customs?
  • What is the most effective way we can support you in this regard?
  • What is the biggest barrier for you at work in honoring your traditions?

Imagine how empowered and valued your employees will feel when meaningful changes are made to the employee handbook and ops in direct response to their feedback. Imagine how pleased management will be when these changes increase employee morale, engagement, and productivity. 

Floating Holidays to Foster Religious DEI

Are there workers who do not celebrate Christmas who want to work on Christmas day and instead stay home on a different day? Is it reasonable (or potentially profitable) for your business to have employees working on Christmas Day? Imagine how accommodated your non-Christmas celebrating workers will feel if you offer them flexibility to work a day that is not a holiday for them - and be given the choice to honor their own customs (without taking PTO!).

Incorporating Floating Holidays

Companies continue to expand their PTO policies, offer flexible work schedules, allow remote and hybrid work policies, and even experiment with unlimited time off in response to employee feedback. Direct Employers Association indicates that, of their members  “More than 64% of respondents said they currently offer “floating holidays” and 27% of the respondents who don’t said they are considering offering them in the future.”

A floating holiday is a paid day off unattached to a specific day on the calendar. The selected date it is taken is at the employee’s discretion. It is termed a floating holiday because it “floats” or moves to whichever date the employee chooses. 

Companies can create a floating holiday policy that works best for them. For example, your organization can choose to award a set number of floating holidays over the November to January period, or to award them annually. You can choose whether unused floating holidays roll over to next year or not. Observed days can be predefined during an employee's onboarding, booked at the beginning of the year, or taken ad-hoc.

Importantly, floating holidays must be specified as an employee benefit that is separate from normal vacation time, sick leave, and other forms of PTO. Additionally, as PTO, it should not affect holiday pay.

Consider how this perk translates into employee satisfaction, work-life balance, and ultimately employee retention. Most importantly, how would updating your attendance policies to include floating holidays for celebratory days support the psychological safety of your workforce year-round?

No doubt, a customizable holiday roster requires HR to run a more nuanced attendance policy than one where holidays fall on specific dates. If you are to venture into this arena, you should consider adopting an attendance management system. Software will be key to tracking these schedules and ensuring your business has the coverage it needs to function on popular days.

Colleagues making a festive toast at an office party

Inclusive Ways Companies Can Treat Religious and Cultural Holidays

Is In-person the Way to Go?

Safety in the office took on a whole new meaning in March 2020, when Covid-19 disrupted our lives and canceled our gatherings. Now physical safety charges psychological safety in a way that it never had prior to the virus invading our lives.

Whereas budget may have been at the forefront of holiday party decision-making prior to Covid-19, we are now forced to ask new and hard questions. If we come together, do we risk spreading sickness to each other and our families? If we gather, will we exclude those with increased chances of becoming seriously ill from attending? If we celebrate in person, will we exclude those who are still dealing with social anxiety or other mental health concerns?

Progression past the Covid hurdle and opting for an in-person celebration is the first step. The second step is ensuring the gathering is inclusive and psychologically safe for those who feel it’s physically safe enough to attend.

Get the Wording Right

If your calendar invite reads, “Christmas Party,” it’s appropriate to update to a more inclusive event title. Try “Holiday Party”, “End of the Year Bash”, or “Celebration Potluck” instead. 

How can removing Christmas Day as “The'' holiday encourage inclusivity, belonging, employee happiness, and productivity? 

Make Sharing a Focal Point

Microaggressions aside, employees are likely curious about each other's cultures, and quite willing to share insight into their own customs and heritage.

Encourage employees to bring stories, traditions and foods to work that represent their culture. This opens the lines of communication about these varied and beautiful traditions. By sharing our whole selves with our colleagues, we can enhance our psychological safety at work, in addition to employee satisfaction and productivity. 

Limit the Drinks

When planning a company-sponsored celebration, consider the presence and role of alcohol. 

Alcohol can be a quick ticket to employee bonding and ease those social jitters. But it can also cause inappropriate behavior, including microaggressions, and dangers such as drunk driving. In addition, consuming alcohol may be against some workers’ religious beliefs. 

So what is an employer to do? Events can certainly be hosted safely with alcohol. Tactics include limiting the amount of time the bar serves drinks or providing limited drink tickets per attendee. Company-sponsored rides home can also be effective in keeping employees safe.

You may want to sidestep this issue altogether by hosting a party without alcohol. It can be a potluck during office hours, cake and ice cream in the break room, or a gift exchange over coffee. Undoubtedly these options will avoid alcohol-induced behavior and may be more comfortable for people who don’t drink.

Alternatives to Hosting an Event

If planning a party is out of reach, whether for safety reasons, budget constraints or otherwise, organizations can still inclusively celebrate employees quarterly, at the end of the year or during religious or cultural holidays. Celebrations show employees that the company honors their work and values them. These festivities can be an important part of company culture and identity.

A new trend emerging as both an employee benefit and an opportunity for team building and togetherness is volunteerism. Whether it’s building a house with Habitat for Humanity, working a toy drive, adopting a family in need for the holidays, or running a bake sale fundraiser, bringing teams together to serve others and get to know each other shows up positively in the workplace.

Woman doing volunteer work at a charity drive

"By giving employees the opportunity to volunteer during company time, companies are able to build a sense of community and create a work environment that is supportive and friendly," said Jennifer Hartman, an HR expert with New York City based Fit Small Business, which provides HR and business services to small employers. "By allowing employees to volunteer, companies can reduce costs and improve productivity." 

To ensure that the process is inclusive, employees can suggest charities or volunteer opportunities. The group can vote on these homegrown options. Be this in December or any other month, giving back and giving together may just captivate your workers and create belonging even more than pizza and bowling.

Supporting Mental Health

According to Choosing Therapy, “69% of people feel stressed by either their ‘lack of time’ or ‘lack of money’ when it comes to the holidays.” Stress can lead to physical illness, depression, anxiety, and substance misuse. As confirmation of this, the National Alliance on Mental Illness noted that 64% of individuals living with a mental illness felt that their conditions worsened around the holidays.

While the holidays can be joyous, for some the season exacerbates mental health concerns. Keeping our friends, family and colleagues psychologically safe is important. Whether it’s getting up from your desk to talk with someone in person, making a phone call instead of sending an email, inviting a colleague to lunch, or just simply holding the elevator door and asking someone “How are you?” while looking them in the eye - a little connection can go a long way. 

Friendly and supportive interaction between colleagues 

Also key is posting and providing information about your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP). If this isn’t already a part of your company’s benefits package, seriously consider adding it. EAPs can provide assistance with a variety of issues from financial problems to anxiety to divorce. EAPs often allow for a number of individual one-on-one sessions with a counselor, which can be a great benefit while navigating if different help is needed.

Religious and Cultural Microaggressions to Avoid

So you’ve changed your “Christmas Party” invite to reflect a more inclusive celebration. This is a step in the right direction. Extra points if you’ve amended your time off policy and got floating holidays sorted out. Now you must get familiar with verbal, behavioral, and environmental microaggressions around the holidays so these can be avoided. 

According to the National Library of Medicine, “Microaggressions are subtle day-to-day put-downs which can impact the wellbeing of individuals.”

While microaggressions can be subtle, those on the receiving end of these comments and behaviors may feel offended. The danger is that, from their perspective, inclusion is not important to your organization. DEI training for your staff will be key to improvement. Without understanding the issue and the experience of people different from themselves, the employees creating these microaggressions cannot contribute to an inclusive workplace.

Examples of verbal microaggressions include asking/saying:

  • “Where are you actually from?”
  • “Why do you wear that?” (In reference to a head covering, symbol, or other traditional dress items)
  • “You don’t look Jewish.”
  • “You’re so articulate.” (A condescending way of implying someone doesn’t “look English” even though they speak it well.) 

Examples of behavioral microaggressions include:

  • Giving someone a nickname without their permission because you are uncomfortable saying their full name.
  • Waiting to ride the next elevator when a person of a different race is on it

Examples of environmental microaggressions include:

  • Not recruiting people of color in leadership roles.
  • Paying men more than women, or workers of one race more than another for the same job.
  • Only naming conference rooms or buildings after white men.

Be Aware, Take Care

Navigating the holiday time is a challenge, regardless of what you believe, what you wear, or whether you overcook everyone’s favorite dish.

Whether you support your employees’ sense of belonging and inclusion by taking them to lunch, organizing a gift exchange, or revising vacation policies to give them flexible days off, inclusiveness is key to success for both the way in which you honor your group’s traditions, and for employee satisfaction. Create a space for sharing and try to get all perspectives and voices in the room, even those who may be shy to speak up.

Jodie Sandell PHR and SHRM-CP
Consultant, project manager, writer, and process improver with over 15 years of HRM experience
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Jodie Sandell holds a BA in Sociology from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, a paralegal certificate and both PHR and SHRM-CP certifications. She has spent most of her career working in legal, education, and HR - writing, managing projects, and improving processes. 

She recently founded All In Project Services LLC to pursue her passion for this work. In her free time, Jodie can be found reading, hiking, paddling or traveling with her family.

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