Managing a multicultural team presents its fair share of challenges and hurdles in the best of circumstances. What makes the holidays extra tricky is the fact that there are so many personal feelings, expectations, and traditions involved. It’s easy to forget that not everyone feels the same way. Depending on personal and cultural background, what is quaint and festive to one person can be highly offensive to another, making the pitfalls many. The basic idea in the multicultural office is to not mix religion with business celebrations and to be sensitive to diverse cultures and traditions.

It’s probably not surprising to anyone that most issues in the workplace, whether holiday related or not, come down to communication (or lack thereof) and assumption. Being an effective manager means taking the time to understand everyone on your team — knowing what makes them tick and figuring out how they can best contribute. It also means knowing something about their cultural background and traditions, and how that translates during holiday season.

Ignoring the differences that exist in a diverse group is always a mistake. Relying on stereotypes is equally treacherous when trying to figure out how to best mark the holidays around the office. So, what to do?

A good place to start is to simply get input from as many groups as possible. And agreeing to stick to a few basic rules can help ensure an inclusive holiday season. However, knowing how to set the ground rules to help everyone understand what to expect in the office is not always easy, and during the holiday season this may require some extra consideration — making sure the ground rules are relevant and truly act as an equalizer — that they are not based on false assumptions or stereotypes. This is where insights into your team members’ cultural backgrounds become important.

Another aspect to keep in mind when trying to create an inclusive office is time off during the holidays, and what that means to different people. For example, if you are from the US, you wouldn’t typically expect to have to work on Thanksgiving or New Year’s Day. As a manager, you should know which holidays around the world affect your team. This is true whether or not they’re based in the same physical office as you.

Don’t expect remote employees to be available on important holidays like Ramadan, Yom Kippur, Chinese New Year, etc. Likewise, if you are all located in the same office, be willing to give time off so that employees can be with their families or fulfill religious obligations. A good rule of thumb is to not make people work on what would be the equivalent of an important holiday for you.

What about the holiday party, how do you appeal to the different groups and traditions of a multicultural office? Diversity consultant Sondra Thiederman, PhD, and author of Making Diversity Work says “Put the emphasis on celebrating. Focus more on what we share and less on where we differ.” Trying to plan a holiday party that recognizes every culture and religion is not a winning strategy, Thiederman says “Go for neutrality, not specificity.”

Consider the following when planning an office holiday party:

  • Having non-specific decor. This does not mean it can’t be festive, it just means staying away from symbols of a specific tradition such as having Christmas trees or Menorahs.
  • Accommodating diverse palates. Again, don’t make the food specific to one tradition, but rather think in terms of having options for vegetarians and non-vegetarians, for example. If alcohol is offered, make sure to serve festive non-alcoholic alternatives as well.
  • Avoiding Secret Santa or other anonymous gift exchanges.
  • Including the family. This is a good strategy because family is an important component in most every tradition when celebrating the holidays.

By: Felicia Shermis



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