Sunday, December 14, 2003

All welcome in this place

With difficult times upon us this year, holiday season celebrated with fervor at work

By John Eckberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Employees of Verst Group Logistics in Walton, including president Paul T. Verst (left) and chairman William G. Verst (second from right, back row) take pride in the company's lobby Christmas tree display.
(Gary Landers photo)
As Christmas approaches, plenty of Tristate employees have turned from global religious and political strife to deck their office halls with holiday displays.

Let's face it - it's been a tough year spiritually. Consider:

• The body count continues to mount in the decades-old Israeli/Palestinian conflict, both secular and religious in its nature.

• In Iraq, American culture and Islamic tradition are still coming to detente in the wake of the ouster of Saddam Hussein. And here, too, the anguish continues.

• At home, the Old Testament's Ten Commandments have been ruled out of bounds for public display in Ohio, Alabama and elsewhere, threatening to further polarize opinion and emotions.

• And then there is the crisis enveloping the Roman Catholic Church nationally and in Cincinnati, as decades of sexual misconduct charges explode in the face of church leaders and the faithful.

It's enough to make a Christmas tree wilt. But in a year where religion has dominated the headlines, the yule season in the workplace of Greater Cincinnati is at peace with itself.

"This time of year is a time to come together," said Steven Bitzer, president of Deerfield Construction Co., a Loveland contractor that employs 80 people. "There's not a desk here that doesn't have some decoration on it."

Bitzer's take seems to broadly reflect corporate thinking throughout the region as employers and employees apparently do not feel a need to shy away from overt displays of holiday cheer. The watchword for the diverse cultures that make up the 21st century workplace is sensitivity.

Bitzer recently was putting the final touches on his annual holiday party address to employees when he paused to consider the special meaning of the season in 2003.

He said he has always been careful not to mingle religion and work, despite the holiday displays. In fact, he goes out of his way not to call his company's end-of-the-year get-together a Christmas Party. Instead, it's a "Yearend Celebration."

"At my company it doesn't matter what religion you are," he said. "There's so much more in life. People should take a positive outlook - rather than sit and worry about what people perceive or believe."

Paul Verst is the president and chief executive of family-owned Verst Group Logistics, a logistics company based in Walton that specializes in warehousing, transportation and contract packaging. The company employs 600 people.

He, too, believes companies need to allow and, perhaps, implore workers to hang holiday decor.

"We are a strong Catholic, family-owned company and encourage all our employees to express their religious beliefs and practice them," he said.

"I think with everything going on in the world, people are seeking something from their faith and trying to find a higher power and higher being out there. People are fed up with commercialization and are trying to get back to the simple things of life," he said.

Live and let live

Though Christian displays in the workplace at Christmas may trouble some, they do not bother Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based civil rights advocacy group.

He doubts many Muslims have problems with all those Little Towns of Bethlehem. That's because Muslims have a religious agenda of their own and seek broader understanding and acceptance of their views. "Muslims might want to discuss Ramadan or Haj," he said. "They will want the right to have religious expression in the workplace," he said.

"Where I used to work - not a Muslim organization - they would have a holiday party and I'd say why not just call it a Christmas party. It wouldn't bother me a bit, as long as I wasn't forced to violate my religious principles," Hooper said.

Most people of the Jewish faith are probably not troubled by society's focus on Christmas, said Rabbi Gerry Walter of Temple Sholom in Amberley Village. Hanukkah, which falls during the Christmas season, is a relatively minor Jewish holiday with major Jewish holidays occurring in the fall.

"It's true that in the workplace and school it can be a challenging time for members of the Jewish community because so much of the culture and celebration revolves around Christmas," he said. "I tell my congregants to rejoice in who they are and what they believe - to enjoy their neighbors' holidays but to remember who we are."

The corporate Christmas

Federated Department Stores, which employs 113,000 and owns 460 stores, tries to keep the holidays bright at its corporate headquarters in downtown Cincinnati, said Carol A. Sanger, vice president of corporate communications.

Poinsettias, reindeer, pictures of Santa Claus and Christmas trees with presents underneath adorn the workplace, and they are there for the benefit of employees and customers alike.

The scene could be right out of the classic film Miracle on 34th Street, which enshrined Federated's Macy division in the holiday entertainment hall of fame.

But Federated, like many companies in the region, also sees Christmas as a time of corporate responsibility. It's an institutional statement that reinforces the spirit of the season. "We adopt families through United Way and buy them presents," Sanger said. "We get into the spirit of the season, which is the Christmas season."

At the downtown law firm of Strauss & Troy, attorneys mark the spirit of the season with community contributions, but internally with a sense of celebration and reverence. William Strauss, president of the law firm, said there are many parties, so many in fact, that Strauss makes a bold boast: "Our law firm has the most and best parties of any law firm in town, maybe any law firm anywhere," he said. "But we do not make distinctions about religious faith. We have many religious faiths represented here. We do believe in the separation of church and firm."

And at Champion Window and Patio Room Co., based in Sharonville, the door is opened to many celebrations this time of year. "We honor Ramadan. We have Muslim employees. We have people of the Jewish faith and have a menorah up, but it's a Christian country and that takes predominance (at this time of year)," said Bernard Barbash, president of the company, which employs 1,600 people in 42 states.

The present and the future

If it seems that workplaces are more festive this year, that may be due in part to an influx of spiritual young professionals into the American workforce.

According to a national survey of spirituality among college students, three of four pray regularly. Seven of 10 of the students-soon-to-be-workers also believe people are spiritual beings and have discussed matters of the spirit with their friends.

The 2003 study by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles questioned 3,680 college students. It suggests the spiritual beliefs of the entrepreneurs and business leaders of tomorrow are disposed toward continuing traditions of honoring religious benchmarks in the workplace.

At Deerfield Construction, Bitzer knows he'll have to deal with concerns of his future workforce, but his attention is focused on current employees.

Last year was a difficult year for Deerfield, Bitzer said, and despite the rebounding national economy, work has not yet picked up this winter, a traditional slow time for construction. But the day before Thanksgiving, employees pulled the dusty boxes of decorations out of a closet and began to hang tinsel and faux holly. "I didn't even have to say anything. People wanted the office to be warm," he said.

While Bitzer said he recognizes that opinions on matters of spirit will always vary widely from worker to worker, he is content with his employees' collective desire to celebrate the holiday season as a time of unity and peace.

"Don't make chaos in my life or my company's life for what you believe," he said. "There ought to be more to what God put us on earth for than bickering and fighting."


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