Americans to spend quality time with their coworkers this holiday season

November 20, 2012
November 20, 2012

In the United States, holidays are often less about making memories and more about making money.

The takeover of commercial interests has targeted Thanksgiving, the day in America traditionally recognizing the 17th century Pilgrim’s harvest celebration commemorated with football, family and friends and oversized turkeys. Thanksgiving parades have long been plastered with ads or floats for children’s television shows and Broadway musicals. Now retailers are starting to open their doors on the holiday, drawing the ire of some consumers and workers at Target and Wal-Mart who may walk off their jobs or stage online protests.

In the United States, Thanksgiving always on the third Thursday in November, with many people making it a four-day weekend visiting families and starting their December holiday shopping.

Some 98% of employers consider Thanksgiving Day a holiday and are closed down; along with Christmas, it’s the most-observed US holiday, according to the Society of Human Resources Management. Next year, 99% of employers expect to be closed for Thanksgiving and 71% expect to close the day after, according to a new SHRM survey.

Retailers, though, represent only 5% of the employers in the SHRM surveys, and they are responding both to consumer expectations of more and better sales and investor expectations of higher profits despite tepid economic growth.

“If one store opens on Thanksgiving Day, competitors will follow—since it is a battle over market share,” said Chris Christopher, an economist for IHS Global Insight, in a recent MarketWatch article titled, “Why are retailers ruining Thanksgiving?” In recent years, people are spending part of their Thanksgiving online, shopping shopping and bargain-hunting.

Wal-Mart and Target both plan to open at 8 or 9 pm on Thanksgiving night, advancing their big weekend sales by four or five hours. The backlash has been strong; more than 360,000 people have signed a Change.org petition asking Target to forgo the Thanksgiving day bargain bonanza. One signer from Gilbert, Ariz., wrote: “I feel as a matter of principle that it is unfair to ask your employees to sacrifice even more of their Thanksgiving for a cash grab.” Wal-mart did not respond to a request for comment.

Target said the decision to open was based on a “highly competitive” holiday season and guests’ feedback, suggesting they would rather shop after their family dinners rather than very early the next morning.

The retailer said workers were asked to volunteer to work on Thanksgiving, and got many more than were needed at “hundreds of stores,” according to a statement by Tina Schiel, Target executive vice president of stores. About one-third of Target store staffers are scheduled to work on Thanksgiving; they will receive premium pay for it and also Friday, when two-thirds of the crew are scheduled.

“There’s significant differences on how countries respect holidays,” said Michael Broomhead, director of the international consulting group for Towers Watson, a benefits consulting firm. “Today we have a public holiday in Brazil. It’s pretty hard to find anybody,” he said, referring to a newer holiday known as Black Consciousness Day (Nov. 20), which remembers leaders in the fight against slavery a century ago.

Workers in Brazil receive 22 days off, for public holidays and vacation time, under its labor laws, the same number as in Spain and the United Arab Emirates. The number of legally-required holidays varies greatly across the world, with the most generous number, 28-36, found in Austria, Malta, the UK, and Poland, according to research by consultant Mercer. The US has no federally mandated days off and is the worst on the Mercer holiday guidelines, followed by Phillipines, Thailand and China.  

“It’s a compliance issue” to abide by labor laws, said Broomhead of TowersWatson. “The treatment for and the respect for people’s time off is a little bit stronger” in most of the world than it is in the United States.

Multinational companies adapt to differences by country, and sometimes even by regions within a country. Switzerland, for example, celebrates a couple of national holidays and then different ones in the Protestant region from the Roman Catholic region of the country, said Broomhead. The dominant religion in a country sets some holidays; others are national holidays such as the Queen’s birthday in the UK.

Some multinationals publish a global calendar showing all the holidays in all the regions where they have staff, said Carol Olsby, who runs a global human resources consulting firm in Seattle. “We would not plan meetings on any country holiday,” she said. “It’s a non-negotiable things…Being together with family is really important.”

Even on installing a major IT network, the manager “would plan around the holidays,” said Olsby, who works mainly with technology companies. The exception is the United States, where retailers and some others seem to be moving toward no holidays. “I can shop 365 days a year, 24 hours a day,” she said.

Broomhead said it would be much more difficult for Wal-Mart or Target to open on a national holiday in Europe or elsewhere because of their more stringent labor laws.  Yet culture and mindset also play a role, including Americans’ “insatiable appetite…for progress and improvement….Are people willing to abandon tradition in favor of—I’m putting quote marks in the air—progress?”

“I don’t think cultural traditions are as deeply rooted here (in the United States) as they are in many other countries,” he said. “Visit Japan and talk about abandoning tradition. You’ll get a very different response.”

Follow Vickie on Twitter at @WorkingKind. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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