Employers should not be afraid to celebrate Christmas provided they take a “common sense” approach to the issue, the head of the country’s leading equalities body has said.
As the country begins the countdown to the festive season, David Isaac – chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which helps the government set and monitor policies on equality – said some employers had indulged in “extreme and disproportionate behaviour” by censoring mention of Christmas, or attempting to make celebrations less Christian-centred. This behaviour risked increasing tension by provoking a backlash about “special treatment”, he said.
“There are a lot of myths out there when it comes to dealing with religion at work. I want to put the record straight,” Isaac told the Sunday Times.
“It is ok to hold a party and to send Christmas cards. Most Muslims and Jews I know adhere to their own religious beliefs, of course, but to some extent acknowledge that Christmas happens and to some extent, with a small 'c', celebrate it. This is people’s lived experience and we need to reflect it.”
Businesses, said Isaac, had a responsibility to look beyond notions of political correctness. “Lots of employers have now become really worried about doing anything discriminatory regarding their Muslim or Jewish staff. Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right and it shouldn’t be suppressed through fear of offending.”
It is unclear whether the practice of banning or playing down Christmas celebrations is widespread, since many media reports on the topic subsequently turn out to be exaggerated or erroneous.
However, in September, the government’s integration tsar, Dame Louise Casey, said she had a visited a community centre where the manager had put up a ‘festive tree’ because he did not want to offend Muslim employees by using the word Christmas.
The manager was “well meaning”, said Casey, but she asked: “What offence did he think he was causing? What did we ever think would be offensive about celebrating Christmas with a tree?”
Last month, Janet King – director of human resources and facilities at Frimley Health NHS Foundation Trust, overall winner at this year’s CIPD People Management Awards – explained how she discovered Christmas dinners had been cancelled when she assumed responsibility for HR at Wexham Park Hospital in Slough.
“Partly that was financial, but partly it was because 65 per cent of the catchment area at Wexham was BME, and somebody thought Christmas would be offensive,” said King. The answer, she said, was not to ban Christmas but to ensure as many different religious festivals as possible were celebrated.
Christmas dinner was “important”, she said, in keeping staff happy and motivated: “It must follow that if you’re a happy, satisfied, engaged employee, you’re going to give better service. Show me a miserable employee and I’ll show you a really poor service.”
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