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Christmas greetings in the workplace may be offensive

merrychristmas“You can’t say ‘Merry Christmas’ anymore—they have taken all the fun out of coming to work. What about my human rights?” (This sentiment was spoken by a worker during one of my recent workplace human rights training workshops.)

Recently, airport immigration officials in the Philippines have been ordered not to say “Merry Christmas”

Is it political correctness?

Is it a human rights issue?

No. Actually, as it turns out, the reason for the rule in the Philippines is an operational issue with origins in Filipino culture. For more details, check out this article.

Back to the training workshop… With all due respect to the person, and the expressed concerns, let me tell you what happened after the above comment was spoken.

Firstly, many of the workshop participants expressed some level of agreement with their brave colleague. Some cheered; others quietly nodded their heads while some participants did not respond in any way at all.

Secondly, I asked for an example of the last time anyone in the room had been told, at work, not to say “Merry Christmas.” After an awkward silence one participant agreed that they had never actually been told, in so many words, not to say it but that there was a “generally understood policy” that Christmas greetings may be offensive to some people.

I would have played a You Tube video like this one if I’d had access to it at the time. It may have lightened the mood a little bit.

Wow! Where did all this negativity come from? I decided to do some research and look for the origins of this Christmas bashing and I turned up some interesting cases.

In the 1980s a receptionist for a Kentucky company was fired because she refused to say, “Merry Christmas” when she answered her employer’s phone. She claimed it offended her beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness and violated her legal rights. The Kentucky Court of Appeal agreed with her saying that the company could easily have accommodated the receptionist without incurring “undue hardship.” The Court upheld her right to receive wages for the period she was unemployed following her firing.

More recently, a worker sent her employer a report of her activities during her night shift as a building maintenance custodian. She ended the report by saying, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.” She made no mention in the report of having injured herself while at work.

Later the worker filed a claim with WorkSafeBC that she injured herself during the shift covered by the report described above. The Vice-Chair of the British Columbia Worker’s Compensation Appeals Tribunal (BCWCAT) noted that “. . . a merry Christmas message reflects a much cheerier attitude than one might expect from someone who has just sustained a left knee injury . . .” and denied the worker’s claim that she had injured herself at work.

Clearly, this worker came to believe that Christmas messages should be avoided!

One poll found that most shoppers prefer “Merry Christmas” signs over the generic “Happy Holidays.” If this is true then why are we telling people at work not to say it!?

What message are you giving the people you manage?

The purpose of workplace human rights legislation is to ensure and encourage equal treatment and the creation of policies that include everyone. The Ontario Human Rights Commission reminds us that the law protects both:

  • expressions of religious belief AND;
  • the refusal to participate in religious observances.

As an employer you must find the correct balance.

  • Avoid imposing your personal beliefs and practices
  • Don’t assume all workers want to participate in gift exchanges and attend parties
  • Have a conversation with your workers about religious observances
  • Allow everyone to share diverse religious traditions with their coworkers
  • Think about inclusion, not restriction

Andrew Lawson, Learn Don’t Litigate

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Andrew Lawson

Trainer and advisor at Learn Don't Litigate
Andrew Lawson is a human rights and health and safety trainer and advisor, currently consulting to both the federal and Ontario governments. Since 1996, he has conducted extensive legal research in the areas of human rights and occupational health and safety law. He has worked in the people management business for over 25 years. Read more
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