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Religion in the office at Holiday time Mark Swartz, M.B.A. M.Ed.

About the Author

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is Canada's Career Activist. His insights reach millions yearly as the Workopolis.com Career Advisor, as author of the best seller "Get Wired, You're Hired," also as a professional speaker and coach on career/work issues. A former Toronto Star careers columnist, Mark's advice is forthright and practical. For Canada's biggest directory of free career articles, and for personalized coaching, please visit www.CareerActivist.com.

This December, Consider Learning About Someone Else's Beliefs 'Have you done your Christmas shopping yet?' It's one of the happy refrains floating merrily around offices these days. Pretty harmless stuff, you'd think. Unless you happen to be Muslim. Or Hindu. Or anyone who subscribes to one of over a hundred other belief systems. For the 42% of greater Torontonian non-Christians, December can be a surprisingly cruel month.

At no other time of year do minorities feel so marginalized. You either end up pretending to be in the spirit of the majority, which belittles your own identity, or you constantly have to reveal your background. Either way, it ain't so easy.

'There is still a lot of fear in the workplace for both employers and employees when it comes to religious issues,' says Brenda Lycett, Principal of 4Change, a human resources consultancy in Toronto. Even though the law says you should be accommodated, people are afraid to ask for days off or flexible arrangements because they may be viewed as disloyal. There's also the fear of ostracism or discrimination.

Employers are worried too, adds Lycett, who is the former Manager of Diversity at a major international telecommunications firm. 'They have to deal with workloads, treat people fairly, and adhere to policies and laws. But they also need to respect people's privacy and maintain smooth dynamics for their group.'

Back when I was in corporate Canada, the onset of December made me cringe. Suddenly I wasn't just part of the team -- I was Jewish (still am, last time I checked), and thus began the great divide. Often it felt like I was being outed, just by people asking me how I planned to celebrate Christmas. I wish instead they'd asked how I intended to spend my holidays. It also would have helped if I'd known my legal rights and sought a support group among my colleagues.

Charles Novogrodsky, a Toronto-based diversity consultant, says that 'A major challenge for workplace multi-culturalism is to be inclusive of everyone's legitimate feelings for celebration.' To do so, you have to not take away from what most people have come to expect, while adding what others need as well. 'People 40-50+ have been in majority white Christian workplaces most of their lives. But they are trying to adjust to the new realities,' he adds.

The confusion surrounding what it's o.k. to say and do nowadays can be frustrating for everyone. Here to assist with some tips for employers is Laraine Kaminsky, executive vice president, Graybridge-MALKAM Cross-Cultural Training. She believes that education can help broaden the filters through which we view others. To that end, she recommends the following:
  • posting information on the company intranet regarding various faiths and their religious observances
  • bringing in speakers for lunch and learn sessions to describe their religious festivals
  • distributing multi-faith calendars to all employees (a free, basic version is available online at www.malkam.com/calendar/index.htm).
  • putting in mentoring programs that include a culture and religion component
  • doing an anonymous survey soliciting ideas on how to best celebrate diversely

Lycett suggests giving your staff some flexibility in terms of which days they can take off. For instance, an Orthodox Christian might want their paid holidays in early January, when they celebrate, rather than in late December. And Jewish employees might want to leave early during Chanukah so they don't miss sundown, but may be willing to stay later on Christmas eve.

You don't have to go as far as some companies have, with a multi-faith prayer room on-site in some of its Canadian facilities. Truth is I get the willies letting beliefs get this deep into the office. I mean, if you're going to do it for religion, what about adding a political debating hall, or philosophy argument haven? In other words, let's respect faith, which is rooted in ideas--but I'm not sure why it deserves to be brought in-house.

In fact, even those in the dominant group may be reserved about their views once at work. Michael Deck holds an MBA and works as Director, Global Risk Management Solutions, PricewaterhouseCoopers. He's also ordained as an Anglican minister. 'I celebrate my faith at church and at home,' he says. 'It's not something I push on others, though if the topic comes up, I am pleased to speak about it.'

Deck isn't troubled by the so-called watering down of Yuletide. His firm held it's annual 'holiday party' recently, where the decorations focused on winter, and not a carol could be heard, hark as one might.

'It comes down to being sensitive to one another as human beings,' says Deck. Still, he regularly greets his colleagues with a heartfelt 'Merry Christmas.' 'It's part of who I am,' he says. However, if Deck knows the recipient could be offended, he might do otherwise.

Some suggested alternatives for those who strive to be cosmopolitan? How about 'Have a joyous Kwanzaa' for African-Canadians? 'Happy Diwali' for Hindus. 'Eid Mubarak' to Muslims ending Ramadaan. And 'good Yule' to Wiccans for the winter solstice. Oh, and Joyeux Noel to our francophone friends, bien sur.

If I've left someone out, I sincerely hope you'll let me know. For, at work as with everywhere else, isn't this the one time of year where no one should feel forsaken?

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