How a Holiday Party Announcement Defunded a Diversity Office

cultural diversity holiday party


Diversity leadership is a politically sensitive role. The best-intentioned winter cultural diversity holiday party announcement, for example, is filled with cultural diversity landmines that can end a diversity officer’s career. Employers have used the Christmas holiday party as a form of employee appreciation and to build camaraderie. However, demographic changes and emphasis on cultural diversity in the workplace have raised awareness of how the annual Christmas holiday party can make non-Christians feel excluded, or even proselytized.

cultural diversity holiday party

Religious Culture Wars & the Christmas Holiday Party

While the PEW Forum reports that Christians are decreasing in number, they are still about 70% of the population. The reasons for their decline in number include increased racial diversity, religious diversity related to immigration, interracial marriage, and a large number of Millennials who identify as unaffiliated. It makes sense that Christians as a majority believe celebrating the birth of their savior should take front and center during the winter holidays. But how can an employer do so without excluding non-Christians?

American Christianity is deeply rooted in the Christmas holiday, which means any changes considered as “watering down” or lowering the importance of the Christian celebration will be resisted. Just ask University of Tennessee’s Chancellor Jimmy Cheek.

It was a simple website posting asking the UT community to be mindful of cultural differences in beliefs. The webpage has since been taken down, but you can find it here and the full text is below for your convenience.

Celebrating the Cultural Diversity Holiday Party Season

As we enter the holiday season, please be mindful of the rich diversity of our campus community. Recognizingcultural diversity holiday party holly a wide variety of cultures and beliefs, we should note that people choose to celebrate in different ways and on varying days of the year.

While there are many joyous occasions and special opportunities to gather, employee participation in any celebration should always be voluntary. While it is inevitable that differences will appear in how people celebrate, everyone is encouraged to have an open mind and to approach every situation with sensitivity.
We are grateful for the many people, cultures, and viewpoints of our campus. We should celebrate our diversity not only during the holidays but also on every day of the year.

On the surface, any effort to increase awareness of cultural differences is a responsible thing for the diversity office to do. You do not want to make anyone feel excluded who is not Christian.

Many students and the members of the Tennessee state Senate took the six sentence announcement to mean that Christ in Christmas was being watered down if not outright rejected. Lawmakers led by Tennessee Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey immediately called upon Chancellor Cheek to resign.

Sen. Dolores Gresham stated that UT diversity office announcement was “. . . very hostile to students and other Tennesseans with Christian and conservative values.   By placing a virtual religious test regarding holiday events at this campus, every student who is a Christian is penalized.” The state Senate passed legislation to defund the diversity office for one academic year.

Your first reaction may be that they are reading more into the announcement than warranted. The reality is that it does not matter if your head is on the chopping block. Tennessee state lawmakers passed legislation that diverts funding from the UT diversity office for one year. Diversity officers must walk a tightrope in their efforts to promote inclusion, which requires the political savvy needed to take multiple stakeholder points of views into consideration when making decisions.

Many organizations have incorporated valuing and promoting diversity and inclusion in its practices. The diversity manager considers the legal ramifications of their decisions when establishing practices much more readily than the consequences for the individual members, organization, and diversity office. The savvy diversity manager pays as much attention to the socio-political impact during decision making.

How to Save the Cultural Diversity Holiday Party & Your Job Without Cowering

What does it take to make savvy decisions that reduce the threat of stepping on cultural diversity landmines? Here is the list of the top ten things to consider:

1. The first thing you want to have in place is a policy that focuses specifically on religious harassment. This includes how to avoid language or symbols that are disparaging against someone’s religion, protecting against forcing one’s religion on others, and the conditions under which members can legally and collegially talk with each other about their religion.

2. Learn about the different holidays and understand their unique practices and significance. This is where your religiously diverse committee will be helpful so that you do not try to learn it all. If you feel as though you must go it alone, find out what the religious representation is in the organization and focus primarily on each of those religions. There are subtle, but important considerations that can make trouble for the uneducated. The difference between Yom Kippur and Hanukkah, for example, is important.

3. Get Feedback from the Diversity & Inclusion Steering Committee. 

cultural diversity holiday party

If you do not have a steering committee (which you really need), you can put together a religion-based diverse group of members of the organization to serve on the holiday celebration committee. Get them on the same page about the holiday event’s purpose and related values. Tying it to the organization’s mission and vision will make it directly relevant to everyone.

4. Share a winter holiday calendar. This can be on the walls, online, or both. Bring everyone’s attention to the cultural events across the winter months. Use the organization’s internal newsletter to share information about different cultural celebrations.

5. Choose the date carefully. Be careful when choosing holiday celebration dates as there are several religious groups that have family and cultural obligations that time of year, such as Kwanza. These activities may require being away from the office.

6. Make sure that the celebration is not a Christmas party in disguise. Keep the seasonal decorations as neutral as possible. The goal is for everyone to enjoy the event instead of feeling being imposed on or ignored.

7. Be Totally Inclusive. Invite everyone to come to the event and let them know that the more cultures represented, the better.

8. Avoid making cultural diversity holiday party celebrations mandatory to attend. It should be promoted as an event that brings the members of the organization together rather than a religious celebration. If people want a religious celebration, such as a Christmas party to celebrate the birth of Christ, try to work with them to make it happen at a different time. Invite all employees and make it a learning experience. The point is to offer choices.

9. Get feedback from the legal office. But do not be intimidated if you get pushback. Their job is to protect the organization. In doing so, they may suggest that you avoid doing certain things that are not well-accepted best practices. Don’t get discouraged. There is no legal reason that you cannot have a holiday party. Simply stay within the legal guidelines. That is what you want the legal office to focus on. If they do not see a legal problem, any reservations they have may be taken into consideration but not a deal breaker.

10. Encourage attendees to share their winter season celebrations. Have them share stories, winter holiday dishes, decorations, etc. People love food and eating with others is an awesome way to build camaraderie and a team environment. One suggestion is to have those offering a dish to share information about it if possible.


You certainly want to avoid haphazardly putting together a winter holiday party event or organization-wide holiday celebration policy. A thoughtful set of practices can support greater organizational inclusion without members feeling as though they have had to sacrifice something sacred. It is also crucial for keeping the diversity manager on task instead of the exhausting work of recovering from stepping on cultural diversity landmines.

Learning Sources:

Davis, L. (2015). Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey suggests defunding UT. Local News 8. December 7.

Hastings, R. (2007). Holiday celebrations in the spirit of inclusion. SHRM. December 20.

Lieberman, S. (2015). How to appreciate diversity during the holidays. The Balance. December 15.

Tamburin, A. (2016). Senate panel moves to strip UT diversity funding. The Tennessean. March 2.

About the Author:

Diversity Executive Leadership Academy

The Diversity Executive Leadership Academy (DELA) offers courses and programs for training and certifying diversity managers and executives. The training program has been in existence since 1998. Hundreds of diversity professionals have received credentials. Learn more about the training programs, please visit

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