T’is the season for planning the dreaded annual soiree: The company holiday party (maybe more appropriately known now as the end-of-year party).
All the potential is there for either a shared festive celebration that rewards success and demonstrates appreciation for yet another difficult year in the era of COVID. . . or a torturous clash of personal grievances, culturally insensitive interactions and uncomfortable conversations. There are lots of reasons — the date, the venue, the catering, the music or entertainment — you as a company leader might get blamed by anybody and everybody for a company party that misses the mark. Don’t add thoughtless, hurtful behaviors to the list this year.
Your first inclusivity challenge is whether to conduct your company’s end-of-year party in-person or online in 2021 as a pandemic still rages.
“Most of our clients, at our recommendation, are skipping an in-person event at this time, even if they know all are vaccinated,” says David Lewis, president and CEO of the human resources outsourcing and consulting firm OperationsInc in Norwalk, Conn. His company serves clients across 70 industries in all 50 states, from the BBC to Peloton and Versace. “We expect that many [employees] will skip an in-person event due to safety concerns, leaving gatherings of this nature divisive, in that those fearful and unvaccinated will be excluded or identified by their absence.”
DEI Learning Opportunities at the Holidays
Ask your chief diversity officer or DEI committee — Don’t already have either one? Q4 is a great time to empower a committee. — to “assemble a complete list of all types of celebrations that could be in play at year’s end, to represent all cultures,” Lewis says. “Find ways to educate your [leadership] team on all different types of cultural celebrations. Use the opportunity to open your team’s eyes to what each ethnicity and culture is celebrating.”
But don’t stop there: Apply your learnings to company policy and culture. “We must make an effort to learn and understand more about our colleagues when making decisions about their work experiences. That includes how we observe holidays and how we take into account their needs for [paid time off],” says Steve Majors, the new chief external affairs officer at the national office of Teach For America in Washington, D.C. (A 30-year veteran of the communications field, Majors also asked us to mention he’s the author of a newly published memoir, High Yella. It’s our holiday gift to you, Steve.)
At his previous employer, Communities In Schools, a nonprofit organization helping at-risk kids to stay in school, “they created a culture where employees played a powerful role in affirming each other’s cultural and religious observances,” Majors says. “So instead of expecting the human capital team to send out messages celebrating or affirming things like Pride month, Juneteenth, EID, Hispanic Heritage Month or Women’s History Month, they encouraged employees who fit into those identity groups to reach out to the entire staff to make them aware of their significance and invite employees to learn more and join the celebration. It was not unusual to receive multiple communications from fellow employees teaching us about the history of Kwanzaa, the meaning of Hanukkah, the joy of Christmas and the origins of Boxing Day.”
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DEI Missteps for Company Holiday Planners
Party planning can be a DEI minefield, and you’d be wise to task your firm’s chief diversity officer or DEI committee with “taking the lead on any holiday-themed messaging,” Lewis advises.
When planning your company’s end-of-year event, be mindful to not conflict with any cultural or religious holidays so that all members of your organization are available to participate.
However, rather than trying to acknowledge all cultures and beliefs at your company party, your event’s invitations, decorations, food and music should avoid associations with any particular religious or cultural celebrations, says Jennifer Riekert, vice president of communications and strategic initiatives at New York Medical College in New York City. “If organizations try to be all things to all people by including themes from every holiday,” she says, “it will likely become overwhelming both for the planners and the attendees and lose meaning.”
At NYMC, that means avoiding “holiday colors” on invitations that only reflect one specific holiday, such as Christmas red and green. “Design it with the organization’s branded colors or with a seasonal theme,” Riekert says, such as winter, or in the case of NYMC, the school’s traditional colors of crimson and gold.
DEI-savvy executives must consider more than just the religion of their employees when planning end-of-year events.
For instance, be more aware of gender diversity in every aspect of employee event planning, says DEI consultant Rex Wilde, whose Los Angeles-based firm provides businesses with guidance and training to create transgender-inclusive workplace cultures.
Seasonal celebrations offer a surprising amount of opportunities to prove especially welcoming to (or ignorant of) your gender-diverse employees. For starters, make sure the company gets their names right on invitations to any events. Companies are notoriously slow to update employees’ names within various directories and email lists (do it right now!), leaving open the possibility that a holiday mailing list will trigger an invite addressed to a transgender employee’s ‘dead name.’
Wilde also recommends using gender-neutral language on event invitations to ensure both employees and their plus-ones feel welcome. And “make sure you have a space for people to list their pronouns on their nametags,” Wilde reminds.
Talk the DEI Talk
And if you give a speech during your company’s end-of-year event, use it to affirm the DEI messages you’ve hopefully sent in other aspects of party planning and communication. “This is an opportunity,” Riekert says, “to communicate the organization’s commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive community that acknowledges and respects everyone’s unique backgrounds.”