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Holiday Headaches

December 1, 2000
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Related Topics: Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Diversity, Featured Article
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Ah, the holidays. Peace on earth, goodwill towards men. A time to gather with friends and families and rejoice in eachother’s company. A time to celebrate the end of a long year, and the beginningof a new one. A time of great religious significance for Christians, Jews, andother religious groups. 

    A time when the HRDepartment should ask for hazardpay. 

    If you’re workingin a retail business, you’re moving at break-neck speed to hire holiday help,while figuring out how to keep the employees who need a little shopping timehappy. Or maybe, if you’re in an office, you’re dealing with a Jewishemployee who’s a little put off by the company’s “Christmas party” and anon-religious employee who’s upset about the vast amounts of religiousdecorations in the office down the hall. 

    And you’reprobably asking yourself, “Is it just me, or does absolutely no one want to behere?” While some problems seem to be universal, no two companies seem to havethe exact same set of issues in December. Below, we look at three dissimilarcompanies -- Marmaxx, ADP, and Jellyvision -- to see what vexes HR departmentsat this time of year, and how they overcome the holiday headaches. 

Adventures in Diversity
    Tony Brown laughsout loud when asked about holiday HR issues. As senior learning and developmentspecialist for Marmaxx, the parent company of retailers T. J. Maxx and Marshall’s, he’s just gotten out of a meeting on thatvery subject. Except that the holiday in question wasn’t Christmas, but ratherHalloween. 

    “We had complaintsfrom two sides,” he says. “The Wiccans, who disapproved of the witchdecorations, and the fundamentalist Christians, who had trouble with the‘occult symbolism.’” 

    For Brown, holidayissues are important, not only because they serve as a microcosm -- and often asa flashpoint -- of greater diversity issues, but also because they directlyaffect business results for his company. 

    “Suppose I’mpagan,” he says, by way of example, “and I’m walking around a departmentand I’m seeing the standard, green, warty-faced witch, and I know the history,know that behind the trick-or-treat thing is a history of witch-burning. I say,‘That’s not who I am.’ How comfortable would I be stepping forward? MaybeI won’t get burned, but maybe I’ll get looked at weird. Maybe I don’tbring my full self to the table. I’m sitting in a meeting, and I’ve got anangle based on something in my past, but I’ve learned not to bring my fullself to the table. One, you’ve got one more person who has to wear his mask atwork, and two, you’ve got a good idea that didn’t get out.”

    With Christmas, theissues are all the more poignant. 

    “I work inretail,” Brown says. “Our holiday is Christmas, and we make no bones aboutthat. It’s a holiday of consumption. We celebrate Christmas around here, butwe’re conscious of its secularization. When you walk around the building, youdon’t see manger scenes. You see trees and stuff.” 

    Some departments, headds, put up Kwanzaa or Hanukkah decorations for themselves, but Brown admitsthat there are still some people in the company who find the differing attitudestowards decoration overwhelming, including fundamentalist Christians who are notpleased with the secular side of the holiday that the company embraces. 

    Which brings Brownaround to his notion of the role of diversity. 

    “Say I’m afundamentalist Christian, “ he says, “and in my department I have someonewho’s gay, and this person is out and open about being gay. Now, we’re arecommitted to an environment where that person is fine, but we also have toremember that, for a Christian, that might be uncomfortable. There’s an issue there. If you’re going to be committed to diversity,you have to be committed to those who aren’t in favor of it. 

    “Look at somethingas simple as holiday decorations. I have a set of assumptions as to what theholidays are about. Not everyone shares them. As long as we keep assuming thatit’s up to them to catch up with you, nothing gets done, and people continuenot bringing their full selves to the table. When it comes down to it, we haveto be conscious of the fact that what we think it is may not be what it is foreverybody. They may go along with us, but we may still lose something.” 

    Brown insists thatyou can never encourage tolerance in the workplace without listening toeveryone’s voice, even those that don’t fall into the conventional“politically correct.” He addresses these situations in the same way he didwith the aforementioned Halloween decorations. 

    “I begin dealingwith these sorts of issues by asking two simple questions: Have you made itknown that you found something offensive, and are you ready to live with it?”Brown finds that getting people to simply communicate often resolves problemsmore easily and more efficiently than any guideline or policy -- and helps easetensions in the office. 

    “There’s adepartment down the hall,” he says, “that goes hog-wild with decorations.Somebody spoke to them, and they took them down with fairly good grace.” 

    The people who foundthemselves offended? They only had to ask. 

A lot of companies give in and shut down for a couple weeks near the end of the year. It's all too much for them to even bother staying open.

How to not be Ebenezer Scrooge
    A lot of companiesgive in and just shut down for a couple of weeks near the end of the year.Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve -- it’s all too much for them to evenbother staying open. 

    Becky Gold knowsthat’s not possible for her company. As senior HR generalist for the Indianaregional office of ADP, the country’s leading payroll company, she’s luckyif she ever gets to leave the building. 

    “This is ourbusiest time of year,” she says, because ADP is swamped with getting payrollreports done before the year’s end, in time for companies to make theiryear-end reports and file taxes. “At year-end time, all vacation and all timeoff is shut off. Anybody who’s part-time is working full-time. They get paidovertime, of course, and we bring in lunches three days out of a week -- Subway,Burger King, whatever.” 

    While everyone thereunderstands the necessity of their working long hours, it doesn’t make it anyeasier when there is a set of important holidays looming. For the people forwhom this is a concern -- nearly everybody -- Gold and her office’s HR staffgo out of their way. 

    Among the projectsthat they’ve set up is a gift-wrapping area. People from HR go out and buywrapping and ribbons and get everyone to pitch in to get everyone’sgift-wrapping done on time. In addition, the company will pick up giftcertificates for people who can’t get away from their desks to shop. Thecompany even brings in a masseuse for one day to help reduce its staff’sstress levels. 

    “Our main goal isto make it easier on them,” says Gold. “I think the thing that’s meant themost to me has been wrapping gifts. It’s nice to talk to people I don’tknow. You’re doing a service for people, and it’s a nice environment to bein. We just sit there and talk.” 

    The process also hasa small perk for her as an HR professional. “We’re a pretty small region forADP, but unless someone has a problem, you don’t get to know people.” ForGold, this rare chance at personal contact makes a big difference for her whenlater those same employees she’s wrapped presents with need her assistance onan HR issue.

Celebrating what you’veaccomplished
    Jamie Pekarekdoesn’t feel that her company has any serious holiday HR issues. As HRassociate for Jellyvision, the manufacturers of the acclaimed game, You Don’tKnow Jack, Pekarek observes that, since Christmas is the biggest selling time,the holiday issues come from trying to beat the clock and ship the product inOctober. 

    “August throughSeptember is usually the crunch time. One thing we do well is that we’re verycognizant of people needing time. We do work long hours at crunch time, but wetry to be aware of what people are going through. The type of people we recruitare very intelligent and self-sufficient, and there’s an understanding of whatthe process is and what needs to be done. There’s a real desire for whatpeople do. We don’t do anything really visible, just being understanding andletting people take time off that they need...You need to take time away andcome back fresh.” Pekarek’s problem is that some of the employees actuallylike their jobs so much, they have to be convinced to leave. 

    By Christmas,Jellyvision’s workload has usually lightened to the point where employees cankick back and enjoy what they’ve accomplished. 

    “We had aChristmas decorating party last year,” recalls Pekarek. “HR brought a bunchof stuff to bring everybody together and have fun -- snowflakes, angels,whatever. We always have a holiday party. Last year we went to Shedd Aquarium.We rented out a section for the company, and had a live band. 

    “I think it’s soimportant that after we put our products out, that we celebrate that we’ve putit out together. I’ve always looked at it as a morale committee. It’ s areward, one of the nicer events we’ve pulled together as a way of saying,‘Thank you for what you contribute.’” 

Workforce,December 2000, Vol. 79, No. 12, pp. 48-53 Subscribenow!

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