The Administrator’s Desk: ’Tis the Season to be Neutral

November 1, 2008

The holidays are fraught with opportunities to offend. Here’s some advice for avoiding the blues.


It’s that time of year again and chances are you’ve already put plans in place to celebrate the season with your staff. From holiday parties to bonus checks, December marks the perfect opportunity to look back over the year and thank your team for a job well done.

Before you break out the Bing Crosby Christmas classics, however, pause for a moment to consider the many different religious backgrounds reflected in your employees (and your patients). For all your best intentions, you could leave someone feeling left out of the fun, or worse, outright offended.

“The main goal during the holidays is to be fair across the board,” says Jennifer Zarate, chief executive of the Professional Medical Staff Association in Kansas City, Kan. “As a manager, you should have a basic level of understanding of all the holidays and religions. And you need to encourage tolerance among your staff by reminding them that we all come from different beliefs and backgrounds.”

Party on

Where office-sponsored social events are concerned, for example, it’s best to keep the theme generic, particularly since many Americans have no religious affiliation at all. Instead of a Christmas party, throw a holiday party or an end-of the-year bash. Replace your Secret Santa swap with a gift exchange.

Efforts to be inclusive, though, do not mean you must eliminate religious references entirely during the month of December. While some practices stop short of decorations associated with a particular faith, for example, Danielle Guyton, practice administrator for Urology Associates in Danbury, Conn., says she embraces that which makes her office unique. “Half our partners are Jewish and half are Christian so we put up a Christmas tree and a menorah [for Hanukkah] in our waiting room,” she says. “I wouldn’t have any problem putting up other decorations to celebrate different holidays as well.”

Another idea? If your office is particularly diverse, encourage everyone to bring in a dessert or appetizer for the office party that represents their religious background, recommends Zarate, noting such efforts help to cultivate a more tolerant and respectful work environment.

Days off

Though it’s harder in a small group setting, it’s equally important to accommodate your employee’s requests for time off to attend religious services wherever possible - not just in December, but throughout the year. Many practices, in fact, ask members of their staff who practice different faiths to cover for each other during the holidays. “Someone who is Hindu may not need off the week of Christmas, so allow them to swap with someone in exchange for days off later in the year,” says Zarate. “It’s about being respectful of each individual and trying to accommodate their needs.”

Debate or division?

As practice administrator, you should also take note of one of the leading sources of friction during the holidays - religious-based dialogue that takes place between the staff. Indeed, the holidays create a platform for people of many faiths to share their beliefs with everyone - including coworkers. “This is the time of year where the goal of some people is to get the word out,” says Zarate. “It can actually lead to very heated debates, which slow down productivity and can bring down morale.”

Indeed, about a third of the organizations that responded to the Institute for Corporate Productivity’s survey earlier this year said they had experienced “an instance where there was some sort of personal clash linked to religious beliefs,” and 31 percent reported that “unsolicited sharing of religious views,” has been a problem in their work place.

Employees are free to discuss religion, of course, but managers should intervene if they feel one or more staff members are making others feel uncomfortable. That goes double if it’s a department manager. “That’s inappropriate in a work environment,” says Zarate. “It depends on your management style, but I would pull those employees aside and remind them that this is a work place and we all have to be respectful of one another.”

Gift giving

A final word of warning where employee gift exchanges are concerned. Such events, while fun, can trigger ill will or resentment if the person who contributed the $20 movie tickets gets a dollar store gag gift in return. As a result, many employers are adopting policies that limit the acceptance of gifts.

According to the Bureau of National Affair’s Year-End Holiday Practices Survey for 2007, 15 percent of organizations allow no gifts of any kind, while 52 percent allow gifts of “nominal value,” and 15 percent set limits on the value of those gifts - usually between $25 and $50. Only 16 percent of the employers surveyed had no policy on accepting gifts.

While it’s important to be mindful of all religious backgrounds during the holiday season, don’t let fear of causing offense prevent you from celebrating. Joseph Quadros, office manager for Del Mar Family Practice in San Diego, notes office-sponsored social events provide an important opportunity to bond with coworkers and leave shop talk behind.

“We’ve never had an incident [where someone felt slighted],” he says. “I like to involve the staff and ask them what they’d like to do every year. Typically, they like to go to one of the doctors’ houses and have a nice catered dinner where we draw names for a gift exchange and give out bonuses. It’s a nice evening for everyone.”

Shelly K. Schwartz, a freelance writer in Maplewood, N.J., has covered personal finance, technology, and healthcare for 12 years. Her work has appeared on CNN-Money.com, Bankrate.com and Healthy Family magazine. She can be reached via editor@physicianspractice.com.

This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Physicians Practice.