During the Christmas season, many companies and associations grapple with ensuring diversity at corporate events. Some organizations have taken the route of banning Christmas trees and cancelling the annual Christmas party. Others have opted for the name “festive event” in order to project a politically correct image. Changing the label doesn’t make events diverse.
I have a different take on this issue. My perspective comes from growing up in downtown Montreal in a truly diverse environment before the word multi-cultural existed.
Diversity does not mean eliminating differences or being blind to them. Diversity is a celebration of differences, the unique and special cultures and traditions that make every part of the world special.
My elementary and high schools were each a virtual United Nations drawing students from a large Jewish community and a neighborhood with immigrants from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and a handful from the Caribbean. There were synagogues in the area and teachers and classmates took Jewish holidays. The same diversity applied at churches.When our Brownie pack visited other churches we were exposed to a range of faith communities from Greek Orthodox to Chinese Presbyterian.
Diversity was a given and celebrations and events reflected that. Potluck luncheons were a potpourri servicing up a delightful mix of cabbage rolls, porgies, Polish sausages, and, of course, Jamaican banana fritters made by my mother. No legislation or policies were needed to ensure that talent shows included Greek, Ukrainian and Polish dancing. This happened naturally.
As my business and personal travel have taken me to many parts of the world, the places that have Christmas celebrations may surprise you. I shared a couple of examples last year.
Last year, I was far away from home at the start of the Christmas season and feeling somewhat homesick. In Malaysia and United Arab Emirates, 2 Muslim countries, it was comforting to discover colourful decorations and Christmas celebrations in unexpected places so I blogged about the experience. I was thrilled that a traditional Jamaican Christmas carol was included in the selections that were played at KL Pavilion Mall. Companies in North America should also make the effort to ensure inclusiveness.
- Are there lessons that corporations can glean from these experiences?
- How do we ensure diversity during the Christmas season and throughout the year?
- Is it a matter of playing with dreidels, having a Menorah and singing Chanukah songs at holiday parties?
- To make employees from the Caribbean feel more comfortable should we add poinsettias to holiday decor, play Parang music, or serve sorrel (a delightful red Christmas drink)?
I would suggest that merely adding games, decorations and multi-cultural holiday cuisine will not create a culture in which diversity is embraced. To create truly diverse organizations, policies, practices and strategies to ensure that the brightest and the best are hired and promoted must be in place 365 days of the year. Companies and their clients deserve no less.
I have had employees from some companies in North America confide that they are afraid to take Jewish holidays as they fear disclosing their religion will hurt their chances of promotion. Is the executive team still predominantly male? Is almost everyone from manager to CEO from the same background? Are members of visible minority groups passed over for promotion even when they are over-qualified? Token diversity at holiday parties won’t change that.
Here is another example.
A few years ago, a Toronto based company contacted our sister training and development company about our Changing Face of Diversity workshop. They wanted to put their entire management team through training to deal with a sensitive issue. Employees from some cultures didn’t know how to use western toilets and they had a significant number of shop floor employees from those cultures.
Sure, it’s great to be paid to deliver workshops but I thought the request was truly bizarre. I asked:
“Wouldn’t it be easier to install eastern toilets in a couple of stalls in each washroom? Companies, shopping centres and airports in Asia and the Middle East accommodate by providing western toilets”.
The idea hadn’t even occurred to them.
Why focus just on Christmas? If a company has a diverse workforce and client base, how it conducts business and celebrates throughout the year should reflect this.
Two nights ago, there was a beautiful example of diversity in action on one of the Chopping in a Winter Wonderland TV specials for Chopped. Jewish, African American, and Mexican American chefs all drew on their roots and created a range of festive dishes from identical ingredient baskets. Che Rachel Willen of New York’s FoodFix Kitchen won with Chanukah inspired cuisine. Watching her work was truly inspiring.
In the same way, when a diverse event planning team or conference committee plans corporate events and holiday celebrations and decisions are approved by an executive team that is multi-cultural, diversity will emerge organically. Anything short of that, is window dressing.