How-to: Throw Inclusive Holiday Celebrations

December 14, 2017
How-to: Throw Inclusive Holiday Celebrations

The end of the year brings feelings of joy, good cheer, and, in many cases, stress. Employees are focused on end-of-year requirements at work plus planning for and celebrating the many holidays that fall in December and January, spending time with family and friends, attending religious services, and more.

Although in many cases, celebrating holidays in the office can be a welcome thing, you want to ensure you are not creating an added stress on employees and help prevent discrimination claims. As you’re making final decisions on how to celebrate the holidays this month, here are some tips to ensure you are planning inclusive activities and parties for your staff.

Holiday Parties

If the company decides to have a holiday party, plan the theme, decorations, and activities to be related to the season, not a specific holiday. For example, having a Winter Wonderland themed event would be appropriate, while one specific to Hanukkah may not be. Or, have a party that includes all December holidays (e.g., Christmas, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day) instead of just one. Also, instead of throwing a holiday party, many companies will instead throw a New Year’s party, an End of Year party, or one for the company’s anniversary. This can help push a celebration to be later in the season when employees (and the business) are not as busy. Having a celebration centered around a company milestone or non-religious holiday may help alleviate some tension around having a holiday-themed party.

When planning, keep the office celebrations as inclusive as possible and aimed toward your team and company culture. One good way to accomplish this is to create a team of employees of different ages, seniorities, departments, backgrounds, cultures, etc. and have them plan the company event(s). This helps ensure that celebrations are planned with everyone in mind and will help get the highest participation of your group. Also, this will help events hit on multiple different interests and help select a date that doesn’t intrude on any other cultural events. These employees can go back to their teams to get ideas on the theme, food and drink, and time of year then bring it back to the group’s meetings for final planning.

Related: The Most Wonderful Time of Year…for Time Off Requests?

Holiday Office Activities

In a similar vein, departments or teams may choose to throw their own celebrations such as a gift exchange, potluck, or otherwise. Again, keep these celebrations as inclusive as possible by not having a religious or specific cultural theme. You can also use these celebrations as a time to learn about other cultures and allow employees to share their traditions with their team. For example, a team potluck can ask employees to bring in dishes and desserts that are a family or cultural tradition or just a favorite dish to share. This allows employees to be included while providing the opportunity to share a dish that others may not have tried as well as the story behind the dish and why it’s special to their family/culture.

Instead of a company or team celebration, many groups find that it’s more rewarding to give back to the community during the holidays. A department can adopt a family and do a food or clothing drive or a team can use a community service day to volunteer at a local charity during the winter months. In this season of giving, employees may find these activities more rewarding than receiving gifts in company exchanges or free food and drinks at a company event.

Office Decorations

Part of the fun of the holidays can be decorating your home and workspace in the spirit of the holiday. Be warned, though - what some view as acceptable decorations may make other employees uncomfortable. If you allow employees to decorate their desks, have ground rules in place on what is and is not allowed. Wreaths, lights, and garland may be appropriate, but having Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and a full manger scene may make non-Christian employees uncomfortable. Also, any decorations that pose a hazard to the workplace (i.e. garland hanging from the fire sprinklers) or that interfere with or are distracting to the office (e.g., a 6-foot Menorah) would not be appropriate either.

One way to encourage employees or teams to decorate for the holidays is to host a desk decoration contest. Employees or teams can sign up and decorate their desk/area in a winter theme of their choosing or the company can choose a theme that teams follow. Then, all employees can cast their votes for the winner. You can come up with a prize for the winning team.

Related: ‘Tis the Season To Offer Great Benefits (& Build a Great Team)

Employee Participation

However you decide to celebrate, don’t make participation mandatory (or seem like it). Employees should be able to join celebrations as they wish, whether it’s an after-hours company party or a lunch-hour potluck. For some employees, it may not be a religious or cultural opposition, but one to do with scheduling. Even paying employees for participation may not be in the company’s best interest. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employees are protected from discrimination with respect to privileges of employment based on his religion or national origin. Having a Christmas party and paying employees to attend may unintentionally discriminate against Jehovah’s Witness employees who do not celebrate Christmas.

Final Thoughts

Overall, when planning your holiday party and office activities, keep inclusivity in mind. Choose activities and themes that will entice everyone to participate, not just employees of a certain culture or religion. Have this conversation throughout the year and plan inclusive holiday celebrations all year long, not just during the holidays. The end of the year tends to be the time when companies focus more on parties and activities, but having a family friendly summer barbecue can be just as fun as a holiday bash. Spreading celebrations out through the year can help show that the company recognizes all types of holidays and doesn’t favor one specific culture.


  • Spiritual, religious, and tradition-based
  • No Federal/State laws requiring holiday time off, holiday celebrations, etc.
  • Make everyone feel included
  • Be aware of cultures represented - will having a Christmas party leave people out or make them uncomfortable?
  • Use this as an opportunity for other religions/cultures to highlight their beliefs
    • Groups can teach others about their beliefs
    • Hold potlucks with cultural dishes
  • Office decor
    • Use common sense - generic holiday decorations are fine, but a manger scene may not be appropriate
    • Keep personal decorations to a minimum and not tread on the rights of others
  • Holiday parties
    • Make attendance optional
    • Celebrate all December holidays, not just Christmas
    • Have EE’s of all cultures be on the planning committee
    • Don’t have the party on a holiday
    • Give back to the community instead of having a party
    • Have New Year’s or End of the Year party
  • Office Activities
    • Potluck/dessert table where employees bring cultural/traditional dishes
    • Hold a donation event
    • Adopt a Child/Family
    • Secret Santa or gift exchange
  • Have diverse holiday events around the year

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