08 29 hawley psychological safety cultural holiday in workplace header
Jen Rosio, University of Utah Health
Navigating Cultural Holidays in the Workplace
Acknowledging and respecting cultural holidays has become an essential aspect of fostering inclusivity and strengthening employee engagement. U of U Health Hospitals and Clinics Chief Operating Officer Gina Hawley shares valuable insights on how leaders can navigate conversations about cultural holidays and create a supportive environment for their team members.

hile many of us look forward to spending holidays with friends and family, celebrating in the workplace can be complicated. Even the most well-intentioned leaders and work environments struggle to equally recognize holidays from around the world, and many important cultural traditions, including items such as food and decorations, slip through the cracks and go unnoticed. Events that are supposed to bring people together wind-up leaving team members feeling isolated and unappreciated.

We often focus so much on working as a team that we forget our differences can actually make us stronger. It’s okay that we are different. It’s also okay that we may not inherently understand each other’s differences. But we all need to try to recognize and understand the values that resonate with those we work with every day.

Acknowledging and respecting cultural holidays are essential aspects of fostering inclusivity and strengthening employee engagement. 

Understanding the impact of cultural holidays

The positive impacts

Well-being: Recognizing different cultural holidays impacts our employees’ wellbeing in several ways. First, celebrating cultural holidays promotes diversity and inclusion throughout the workplace.

Connection: Second, celebrating our team’s diverse religious and cultural traditions helps our leaders learn about their employees on a more individual level. We can better support our teams when we understand the cultures that have shaped their lives.

Employee engagement: Finally, respecting personal differences doesn’t just benefit the individual–it benefits the entire team. As leaders, we can boost employee engagement by making sure our employees feel like they belong. Let’s help our team members feel not just welcome, but also included.

Overall, we need to respect the unique heritage of all our colleagues. We need to ensure that people know that they're surrounded by a supportive community, even if it's not a perfect reflection of their own religion or culture. It’s all about encouraging others to be their authentic self.

Regardless of personal traditions, taking time to observe and celebrate important holidays helps people better support their team, their patients and their loved ones. 

Challenges that leaders may face in addressing cultural holidays

One of the greatest obstacles leaders face while navigating these conversations is simply starting the conversation. Whether it is a lack of awareness regarding cultural or religious differences or just being scared to broach the subject, sometimes we just don’t know how to ask our colleagues about their traditions.

Ultimately, it comes down to approaching conversations with empathy and respect. We can foster a sense of community within our teams by embracing our differences.

Initiating conversations about cultural holidays

Looking for some ways to get the conversation started? Here are some basic tips to initiate open discussions about cultural holidays:

One-on-one conversations: Ask your employees individually if there are cultural holidays or traditions that are important to them outside of what is currently recognized by the system. This is an important step before inquiring further about a particular holiday as we don't want to make any harmful assumptions. If you feel comfortable talking with a team member one-on-one, simply saying, “I don't know much about this holiday. Do you feel comfortable telling me more about your religion and what your needs are during this time? How can I help support you?”

Group discussions: Another way to create a supportive environment is to invite people to share their experience in a group setting. Try opening the conversation with, “Let me be vulnerable here for a minute. I don’t know much about this holiday. Do we have any team members that celebrate? Do we need to do anything different?”

Build relationships and trust with team members: These conversations depend on comfortability and rapport with your employees. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to create an open space whether it's making sure your door is open to team members and/or looking for ways to approach team members in a respectful manner We don't want to sit in our office waiting for our teams to approach us, we lead by putting in the work and inviting them in.

Know your limitations: Discussing cultural and religious practices requires vulnerability and trust. Don’t be afraid to admit it if you don’t have that level of rapport with team members. Try to arrange for someone they do trust to understand their preferences, whether that’s another coworker, supervisor, manager or HR representative. 

Balancing priorities: While concerns about time-off and operational implications are valid, they should not deter supervisors and leaders from engaging in conversations about cultural holidays. By collaborating with colleagues in HR and leaning on their expertise, leaders can navigate these conversations with confidence, ensuring that accommodations are made in a way that respects both employees' needs and operational efficiency.

Empower employees to initiate conversations: Even though supervisors are responsible for working with team members to find solutions for any cultural or religious requirements, it can be daunting for employees to ask for accommodation like time off. Knowing this is the norm for employees, ask yourself as a leader what ways you might make the process easier. As leaders we have the opportunity to influence positive change.

We can encourage our team members by being interested and excited to learn. With our support, our colleagues will be more willing to share with their team because they're proud of who they are.

By creating a comfortable and welcoming environment, we can empower all our employees to share the holidays that bring them joy.    

We welcome your input: Leaders, we value your perspectives. Please share your insights in the comments below on the additional challenges and/or ideas you may have about navigating cultural holidays in the workplace.


Gina Hawley

Chief Operating Officer, University of Utah Health

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