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March 10, 2009

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Dear HR Guy:

I've worked at my organization for 15 years. There have been silent discussions, but no action over the years about providing symbolization of the Christian, Jewish and African American religions, which make-up the fabric of this organization.

The dilemma really began this year, when in June we hired an office manager after many years of doing without one. She indicated to me how upset she was when she exited the elevator in December and saw the Christmas tree in our common area (receptionist area), something about which she was not consulted. There has never been a requirement to inform anyone and I've been doing this for 15 years.

What's the answer here?

Susan

Dear Susan:

Religious expression in the workplace is a touchy issue. Few things have the innate power to offend like religious symbols. Whether it be other employees or clients, chances are someone is going to see one of these symbols and feel threatened by it.

As such, many companies have developed policies that limit religious expression in the workplace to small trinkets in an employee?s personal workspace. Even around the traditional Christmas holiday season, often you only see "festive" symbols such as tinsel and other non-explicitly religious symbols. Just how much is too much is completely subjective.

Some companies, on the other hand, don't place limits on religious expression and particularly go all out around Christmas. In many company cultures, there is nothing wrong with this. But if that expression is creating a negative environment among employees or otherwise offending potential clients, your business is suffering at the hands of this expression and there should be some intervention.

This reminds me of something that came up when I was in grade school. The teacher used to give us stickers on our papers if we did particularly well. Around Christmas time, Santa Claus would often appear on the stickers. This went on for years without it being a problem. Then one day in fifth grade, one of my classmate's parents complained and, well, that was the end of anything even resembling a religious symbol. We then recieved "holiday" tree stickers - with permission of the students - or other non-religious "festive" symbols.

The bottom line is that you don't want to offend people because offended employees make for bad lawsuits and offended clients make for bad business. The best way to deal with the issue is to have official company guidelines, but in the absence of those guidelines, discuss any decorating plans with your fellow co-workers and supervisor and come up with something that work for everyone.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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