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Be festive, not offensive

Richard Fausta gives tips on how to ensure harmony is brought to mulitcultural offices over the Christmas period
 Office harmony over the festive period

By Richard Fausta

Ah, the holiday season. Visions of sugar plums, carolers around the town square and the smell of Christmas pudding. Except in your workplace.

Today's holiday season in the modern workplace is becoming a confused tradition, misguided criticism, changed rules, and what people say is a loss of the real meaning of Christmas. In the UK, there has been increased anger at the number of anti-Christmas workplace decisions being made in recent years.

Managers and authorities point to the new diversity of people, ethnicities and faiths in the modern workplace in Britain as the key culprit. The UK has nine large religions - Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Jain and Bahai. How can managers of an office environment celebrate Christmas, ostensibly a ‘religious’ holiday, without accusations of being insensitive to all the others who work in the UK? It's a brain tickler for those having to make such decisions.

Christmas traditionalists feel let down when they see pronouncements such as: "To maintain the professional look and feel of our offices, festive decorations should be displayed only in the central, public areas of our buildings." Yet, the hands of management are tied when it comes to creating a holiday seasonal environment. Before you start to put up those 8-foot-tall pink artificial Christmas trees around the office; it’s best to heed some basic protocol for in-office decorations.

Clearly some guidelines are necessary for this holiday period. While many companies decorate the office in some fashion over the holiday, there are also hearing complaints about it. One survey found 85 percent of companies that decorate their offices have had to adjust policies as a result of complaints about the decorations.

Besides the faith and religious kerfuffles that can often arise in the office; there's also the issue of holiday decorations and work distraction. Office decorations during the Christmas season is seen as one reason toward the notion that employees can lose focus. There's a multitude of new elements in the workplace to cause a colleague to lose attention. Talking with co-workers about Christmas preparations, discussing shopping, parties and decorations can be perplexing to any manager dealing with staff productivity.

And on top of that, the added company pressures of the recession and trying to cut down on costs have also caused many offices around the UK to minimise any type of holiday celebrations in the workplace.

The Royal Bank of Scotland was probably the biggest casualty from last year. In order to curb costs, the bank stopped subsidising holiday parties over the 2011 holiday season, and banned staff entertainment last year.

So what guidelines should you follow and what are some of the Dos and Don'ts for managers to consider?

Deck the holidays with decorations of policy

Before you add anything to your business workplace area, develop a policy. Talk to some of your employees. What's acceptable? What's not? What's preferred? It's best not to simply write a strict policy backed by your own personal beliefs. Find a consensus among your department or company.

Desk area decorations

Once your office has a policy for holiday season decorations, then communicate that to employees so everyone has the right reference points. Let employees know how they can decorate their personal work space. Set some guidelines on what's allowed. If one of your colleagues wants to put up a picture of Jesus, but he works next to a Buddhist, there may be some sensitivities involved to deal with.

Some offices are arranged in cubicles where there's an inside space and an outer space. It's best for employees to keep any highly religious displays inside the walls of the cubicles. One's co-worker should respect that area as your own. Feel free to post up on religious displays in that space, if OK with management. But on the outer sides of your cubicle, keep the decorative displays light and friendly, snowflakes or cardboard trees would be a nice touch.


Office workers like to plug-in a small strand of lights around their desk for that festive feeling. Some lights may be OK, but blinking lights may distract other co-workers. Especially on dark overcast winter days, an office full of wildly blinking lights could not only be distracting, but could possibly alter some worker's brain sensitivities to light and dark - be careful with lights.

As a rule, use only lights that are rated for indoor use. Make sure the lights are in good condition, with no exposed or frayed wires. The best types of holiday lights are the smaller, energy-efficient lights with an approval rating. And don't forget to unplug lights or any animated displays when leaving work for the day.

Holiday scents

What smells like a beautiful mix of holiday smells of cinnamon, baked apples, and gingerbread may make your Indian colleague keel over in convulsions. Managers need to direct employees to respect their neighbor’s workspace. That gingerbread-scented potpourri may not work in a mixed ethnic work environment.

Christmas music, LA, LA, LA!

Unfortunately, the love of “Holly Jolly Christmas” may not be as deep as yours. So keeps that singing Santa on your desk firmly in the off position. There's enough Christmas music to go around throughout the month, so there's no need to have more at work.

Actually, holiday-themed music in the office may not be as much of a nuisance these days, however. As more office environments allow employees to plug into to their PC or their devices to hear individual music; office music systems are slowly going by the wayside.

Hanging Christmas pieces

It's probably best not to hang Christmas-themed wreaths, garland, lights and more around office safety areas, like sprinkler systems, fire exit signs, smoke detectors or other areas for worker safety. In a warehouse setting, managers should be careful not to allow decorations in areas where forklifts or sliding ladders will be used.

Christmas in the office is naturally a festive time of the year, but it can also be a stressful time for many, as they race to finish deadlines and more before their holiday break. Approaching this time with caution and sensitivity, in relation to holiday decorations, lights and other fun stuff needs to be a key priority for managers and office leaders.

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