Etiquette: Decorating the Office for the Holidays

By Linda Merrill, Networx

The 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 a nice camaraderie between co-workers. 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 rated for indoor use. Walkways and exits shouldn’t be impeded 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. Ninety-four percent 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 percent reported problems related to the decorations and 85 percent 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 more 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.

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Image: Creative Commons


a             y m.
g d c5 years ago

it can create a different & festive scene...
as long as they do decorating on their own time, are not disruptive to other employees, and take down when holiday is over...

Carmen S.
Carmen S6 years ago

great ideas, thanks

Linda S.
Linda Stuckey6 years ago

I work in a school where everyone seems to decorate lavishly. For the last four years, though, I was at a different school, where the few decorations were unobtrusive. Since I don't celebrate holidays (they aren't part of my faith), I was a lot more comfortable at the previous school. Last week I helped a coworker hang Christmas lights because she's my friend, but I felt like a hypocrite for doing it. I suggest that you put your decorating time and energy into your home and add a few small touches of your holiday spirit at work.

Nicole G.
Nicole Gorman6 years ago

Decorating to celebrate a "festive" time of year is fine but the difficulties really do rise in any type of religious iconography. Keeping it "seasonally oriented" (snowflakes, icicles, holly leaves and berries, etc...) in my experience causes the least problems. A trip to HR for playing "Christmas Carols" is never fun!

K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Fred Krohn
Fred Krohn6 years ago

General decorations like sparing use of evergreen wreaths or garlands are fine; the holiday (with one exception) represents the winter and continuity of life. The exception is the Jewish Maccabee military victory over the Seleucid (Syrian Zeus worshipping) Greeks around 160BC we call Channukah. In any case, general area decorations should be sparing. Where workers have individual areas (their own corners, cubes, or offices), they should be able to decorate those 'tastefully' to their hearts' content in a manner that does not affect productivity. I'm fine with most evergreen-based and fey/Little People based decorations, as I follow the Asatru of old Scandinavia; I am pantheistic, acknowledging all gods and choosing my favourites to worship. Hopefully people will come together for the Winter Solstice that the whole holiday is actually about; gathering for the coldest part of the year in friendship (or at least nonhostility) and sharing food, drink, and warmth. Happy holidays, whether you celebrate Channukah, Christmas, Saturnalia, Kwanzaa, Yule, or any of the other Solstice holidays out there!

Aoife O Mahony
Aoife O Mahony6 years ago


Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran6 years ago


Chad A.
Chad Anderson6 years ago

Decorating for the holidays should be inocuous enough so long as there are no ulterior motives-like the proselytizing co-worker who uses it as an opportunity to convert people.

Claudette Colbert

I don't work in an office but at the house just bought some festive paper and put it over the top of the dining table. Created a lovely festive atmosphere for under $1.00.