From October through early January there are dozens of religious holidays. Many of us are familiar with Christmas and Hannukah (though the latter is actually a relatively minor Jewish holiday), and we may know a bit about Diwali. But we may not have a solid handle on the many Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, Bahá’í, Pagan, Rasta and Muslim holy days, festivals and observances which fall in this timeframe.

Navigating the holiday season can be challenging. Some organizations opt to avoid celebrating any holidays for fear of missing one. Others do their best to ensure all holidays are included on their organizational calendar and send out greetings. Some invite faith-based Employee Resource Groups to share information or host celebrations. 

While holidays are tricky, the way our organizations approach them can communicate a lot about our intentions to be a welcoming workplace. Here are a few tips: 

Learn together: Holidays are perfect for learning more about religious, spiritual and secular identities because they go beyond the philosophical teachings and speak to things we all value and understand: gathering with family and friends, timeless traditions and rituals, food and celebrations and, most importantly, connecting with what is meaningful in our lives. Employees are often hungry for this kind of information and value the opportunity to connect with colleagues around this topic. Encounter recently introduced a new Holiday program designed to help colleagues understand more about each other’s religious holidays. The first time we presented this as a lunch-and-learn at a high-tech firm, we were pleased but not surprised that 50% of their employees attended and went on chatting long past our allotted time. Learning together and sharing about our traditions in a low-risk situation is an excellent way to create a more welcoming culture. 

Acknowledge major holidays: While we understand why some organizations choose a neutral position and not to acknowledge any holidays, we think they might be missing an important opportunity. Having their employer recognize a holiday can make an employee feel seen. It’s even better if the organization can take the next step, sending an internal greeting and adding a bit of background about the holiday, the appropriate greeting, and a link to more information. This alleviates the burden on employees to explain their holiday and provides an invitation for colleagues to connect using appropriate greetings and genuine curiosity.  

Practice inclusive scheduling: Many religious holidays involve food but a number also require fasting. Jewish holidays typically begin at sundown the evening before, which means winter holidays can start before the workday is complete. Understanding the nuances of religious observations can help you practice inclusive scheduling and be more sensitive to the needs of your staff. The Ontario municipal elections this year are on Diwali, the most important Hindu holiday of the year. We have encountered other stories of organizations where Diwali was not on their radar. Inclusive scheduling will help you avoid this kind of error. 

Rethink typical winter holiday events: Traditionally the Christmas season has been a time when organizations engage in charitable giving programs, staff parties, volunteer opportunities. While we can all applaud the idea of giving back, and celebrating together, many religions have a tradition of charity associated with major holidays which fall outside the winter season. 

Organizations may want to consider shifting or duplicating some of these activities to other times of the year so that they become more aligned with the corporate culture and less attached to one particular holiday season. 

Review how your organization navigates time off for religious holidays: Your approach may depend on the size of your organization and the nature of your work, but where possible, make accommodating for your employees religious holidays as simple, straightforward and generous as possible. Strive to handle a request with the same spirit of acceptance and understanding as we do for more well known Christian observances.  

Improve your organization’s religious literacy: Encounter has a number of free resources available including a 2022 Winter Holiday Calendar and Guides to Welcoming Workplaces which provide information on a number of different religions. You are welcome to download them and share with your team. 

Our culture, and specifically our statutory holidays are centred on the Christian calendar. 

As an organization, being mindful of recognizing, supporting and celebrating holidays from different faiths can go a long way to creating a more equitable society and nurturing a sense of belonging for all your colleagues. 

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