Etiquette: Decorating the Office for the Holidays Creative CommonsThe holiday season is upon us and it’s time once again for the annual tug-of-war over what’s appropriate – if anything – when it comes to seasonal decorations in public spaces. With half of our waking hours spent working, it’s not a surprise that many wish to liven up the daily office grind with some fun seasonal décor.

    The problems generally arise when there are differing opinions on what is appropriate and whose holiday is being celebrated. In most cases, we have adopted an “all-in” mentality – mixing Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa traditions, depending on the makeup of the office staff. In the best circumstances, this fosters camaraderie between coworkers. In the worst, it can become a battle of personal expression vs. the rights of those who don’t celebrate the season and prefer not to deal with it for half of their waking hours. Generally, it makes sense for a company to establish a written policy based on safety issues as well as the general cultural makeup of employees and customers.

    Many organizations publish rules about what kinds of holiday displays are acceptable and what are not for safety reasons. For instance – all decorations should be flame-retardant, there should be no lit candles and lights should be safe for indoor use. Walkways and exits shouldn’t be blocked by displays of Christmas trees or Frosty the Snowman and in general, decorations should not impede the daily flow of business. This is simple and straightforward. Harder to navigate is the employee who wishes to listen to holiday-specific music at his or her desk, hang blinking lights or put out a display of cinnamon-scented pine cones. All these things may make that individual employee happy, but can infringe on their cubicle or office neighbors for many reasons.

    In 2006, the International Facilities Management Association (IFMA) took a survey of their membership on office holiday décor policies around the country. 94% of respondents said that employees were allowed to decorate for the holidays, with Christmas being the largest percentage, followed by Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. Of this group, 25% reported problems related to the decorations and 85% of the complaints led to policy changes, with safety concerns, facilities damage and excessive decorating being some of the problems reported. Some respondents also noted that they hold contests in their offices for best displays in different categories (prettiest, funniest) as a way to boost employee morale. Ultimately though, not everyone will be satisfied. For some, holiday décor is all about “more is better” and for others there is no level of display that they deem appropriate due to the implied religious subtext.

    Consensus seems to be that for employees who wish to decorate their personal spaces they do so on their own time, such as before or after work or during a lunch break and it should not impose on their neighbors in any way. Truly religious symbols such as a nativity scene should be kept small and unobtrusive, for the owner only. On the other hand, more common decorations such as garlands are more generally appropriate for all because they represent a more commercialized aspect of the holiday. 

    Public space office decorating should be in keeping with the business of the business – a toy company may have exuberant displays while an investment banking firm would likely be more conservative. As with employee dress codes, decorating rules should be in keeping with the work at hand and level of client/customer interaction. In the end, work is work and while holiday décor can be fun, it should never impede the work at hand, the safety of those on site or the professional image of the corporation.

    Linda Merrill is a Networx writer. 

    Updated January 18, 2018.

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