Holiday Season Could Cause Problems at the Workplace

Monday, November 30, 2009

The holiday season, with its heavy focus on religion, can spark awkward situations at the work place. This festive time of year has many workers wishing to spruce up their offices with holiday decorations, leaving employers to figure out how to regulate such religious expression.

Saint Joseph’s University business ethics expert David Steingard, Ph.D., says silencing such expression just doesn’t work. Steingard says a workplace policy which bans all religious celebration is a basic violation of religious freedom and, practically speaking, just isn’t’ feasible.

“As people spend so much time in the workplace, to deny any recognition or practice of religion at work would be morally unjustifiable – one’s religious identity cannot simply be switched off at work,” says Steingard.

So what’s an employer to do? Steingard says there are a few important questions that employers and employees in a religiously pluralistic work place should consider:  Is everyone’s faith tradition being honored or celebrated? What is considered religious expression? If one employee’s religious expression offends another whose right is honored and why?

Steingard also reminds us that displays and festivities related to Christmas, though central to American culture and seemingly harmless to some, may be disconcerting to others.  A company’s good intentions in throwing a “Christmas Party” could make non-Christians feel alienated and or uncomfortable.

It’s clear there isn’t a solid answer of how to deal with religion in the workplace during this holiday season, but Steingard says addressing such problems head on is the best approach. “Companies need to have thoughtful and engaged dialogues on these questions," he says. "Otherwise, if unmanaged, religious bias in the workplace will inevitably occur.”

Media Contact

Steingard is the assistant director of the Pedro Arrupe Center for Business Ethics and associate director of management at Saint Joseph’s University. He can be reached at, by phone at 610-660-3231, or by calling University Communications at 610-660-1355.

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