Recently I had been invited to undertake some consultancy work for a Residential Home for Adults with Learning Disabilities. The consultancy work involved participating in the team’s weekly meetings to understand the team communication and dynamics. During one of the meetings, there was a discussion about a new staff member due to join their team, Mira, who had stated in her post appointment meeting that she was a practising Hindu and her culture entails not drinking alcohol. Mira specified that she would prefer not to participate in taking the clients to the local pub unless there was a staff shortage and she was required to do the task.
Even though Mira hadn’t yet joined the team, I was curious to observe some of the statements made by staff, such as:
- Are we allowed to wish her ‘Merry Christmas?’
- Does this mean we will need to cancel our Christmas Event at the local pub which we have been going to for the past eight years? It’s not fair; the chef always does us a special deal.
- Will we still be allowed to put up decorations and Christmas tree? What do we do if she feels uncomfortable about the decorations?
So what’s the right answer?
The Employers Forum on Belief states there is no reason for teams (and organisations) to avoid celebrating Christmas for fear of offending minority faiths, although it advises putting up ‘seasonal’ decorations in the workplace as opposed of religious ones. It states: “The Christmas we know today is also built on many other traditions of mid-winter celebrations, and some argue that playing down its religious significance can avoid upsetting or alienating non-Christians.” The challenge of appearing ‘politically correct’ has led some to the view that imposing a Christian festival on modern multicultural Britain can now be considered inappropriate.
Some of the current concerns on the emphasis of political correctness around this festive time of the year have caused resentment within the communities which includes various faiths and religions. The phrase ‘Happy Holidays’ for some has been interpreted as ‘Merry Christmas to those of you who do not celebrate it’ or ‘I really want to say Happy Christmas and I am afraid to, in case I get told off’. It has been recognised by many that this time of year is simply an opportunity to be festive, display Christmas decorations, put up bright lights, send Christmas cards and emails to employees, customers etc. and eat lots of chocolate.
It’s all about the team
By denying Britain’s Christian heritage, we are not only creating bad community relations, but what other mechanism is there to break the mundane of work routine? For instance, Christmas parties are now not really only about celebrating religion, rather they are about improving staff morale, loyalty and thanking employees for all their hard work and efforts over the previous year. One colleague said: “Christmas parties and festive celebrations are a good team building exercise, and it’s absolutely necessary and rather fortunate that it occurs on a yearly basis.”
Organising a Christmas party in itself is unlikely to constitute religious discrimination against any non-Christian contrary to the Equality Act 2010. However, teams and therefore organisations must be careful to take the various religions (and other protected characteristics) into account when planning the date, location, theme and catering for their Christmas party.
In the Residential Home Christmas party, an ‘alcohol-fuelled’ party in the local pub could well deter Mira from attending as her religion forbids festive association with alcohol. Equally, Friday nights may cause problems for (some) Jewish employees because they have to be home an hour before dusk for the start of their Sabbath. Some other colleagues may not be able to attend evening events due to child care arrangements. It is therefore essential for organisations to review their arrangements for their Christmas parties and identify areas where staff might be at a disadvantage. It also becomes the organisation’s responsibility to consider ways of overcoming these disadvantages – the focus being for all employees to feel and be included in the Christmas parties.
The personal view
In terms of wishing Mira a ‘Happy Christmas’, I asked her directly of her views. She said she feels delighted when she is wished ‘happy’ over Christmas; she considers this as a symbolic ‘welcome’ gesture of living in UK. With regard to Christmas trees and other decorations, she explained: “We in India define any religious event more in terms of religious freedom, inclusiveness and understanding. So you can sport religious symbols freely, even in private firms. And Westerners might be really surprised on finding idols, pictures or even religious ceremonies (in some cases) at work places reflecting on the religious beliefs of the owner of the firm. Everyone accepts this and everyone irrespective of their own religion participates in the religious ceremony with graciousness and respect.”