Employers face a looming ethical issue when coming to year’s end: what’s a holiday, and how should it be observed? For most Americans—and particularly for most of us in the Midwest and in central Illinois in particular—this question appears odd and foolish. But in a multi-cultural environment, the question is very real.
Think about the holiday question. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a holiday first as “a day set aside for special religious observance.” The second definition is “a day on which one is exempt from work; specifically: a day marked by a general suspension of work in commemoration of an event.” Nearly all workplaces observe Christmas as a holiday. That day is a Christian observance of the birth of Jesus Christ. Another frequent observance: Good Friday. How many workplaces, however, observe the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur? How many workplaces observe the Islamic New Year: 1 Muharram, or the birthday of Muhammad, 12 Rabia’ Awal?
The second definition refers to holidays in every country. In the United States, Thanksgiving Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day are three examples. We used to observe Columbus Day, but Native Americans found the observance offensive. The Polish population sought to observe Kosciusko Day to celebrate the Polish patriot who was a general in the Revolutionary War in the United States—but many think this observance is ethnically narrow. On the other hand, we’ve observed Martin Luther King Day on the third Monday in January, as African-Americans and others urged Americans to honor the champion of civil rights and racial reconciliation.
So, from an ethical perspective, what are the holidays a business should designate if it employs or serves a diverse population? Here are some guidelines:
• Historical and national secular holidays. As every nation has specific holidays and holiday periods, there are several we as Americans observe no matter what our national or ethnic origin may be. Ethically, these observances are neutral, for they’re part of what might be called the “citizen contract” for Americans. These holidays include New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving Day.
• National celebrations. Some observances are more specific or purposeful in scope, to celebrate national “advances.” These holidays include Martin Luther King Day and Presidents Day.
• Optional holidays. These observances are days such as Kosciusko Day; Columbus Day; and, in some places, Cinco de Mayo. These days speak to specific ethnic observances and celebrations.
• Religious holidays. Employees with religious convictions seek time to focus on spiritual issues such as Christmas for Christians, Yom Kippur for Jews, and 1 Muharram for Muslims
Some companies are moving towards two or three rotating holidays for employees to elect to observe based on their ethnic or religious backgrounds. That enables employees to “customize” their observances based on their personal needs or convictions. Christmas also has a secular element in American culture as a time for families to join together and to exchange gifts—whether or not one believes in the “reason for the season.”
Another ethical issue: holiday observances in the office. Perhaps it’s Scrooge-like, but in a multi-cultural workplace, having a “Christmas party” can create problems for people who don’t observe the Christian roots of this season. Schools already have confronted this ethical issue by hosting a year-end or winter celebration for students, teachers, and parents. Food from a variety of cultures is offered, together with music highlighting the winter season, art displays, or plays appropriate to the season.
Some religious advocates have become angry about taking the religious emphasis out of the season, but the workplace and the school are secular environments. The religious focus of the season can be celebrated in churches and families. If, in the workplace or school, we honor the dignity of people and their cultural backgrounds, we need to be careful to find common points where people can celebrate together rather than deal with hurt and separation. That way, we truly can say, “Happy Holidays!” IBI