I recently attended my company’s annual “holiday” party and during the pre-dinner cocktail hour our CEO came over graciously thanked my partner and I for attending. I thanked him in return for holding it – and then, without thinking, I added a heartfelt “Merry Christmas!” Well, one of my colleagues must have overheard, because shortly thereafter they discreetly informed me that our top boss is in fact Jewish, and therefore does not celebrate Christmas. I was mortified, of course – but in my defense, I’m relatively new to the organization (3 months). Also, the part of the country I’m from is decidedly monochromatic in its spiritual diversity, so “Merry Christmas!” is just what you say whether you’re a believer or not (I identify as agnostic). Nevertheless, I’d hate to think this relatively minor (?) misstep with an important colleague might sour our relationship. He’s probably forgotten by now anyway, but I can’t stop thinking about it. Should I apologize? Or am I blowing the whole thing out of proportion? – Name withheld
Those holiday parties are tricky, aren’t they?
They mix the personal with the professional – and that can lead to some awkward interactions with coworkers, even for those of us with the most practiced social graces.
As you say, how were you to know your company’s CEO is Jewish? Unless it relates to your job (were your company in the business of manufacturing Kosher foods, for instance), or it had somehow come up before (or he wears a yarmulke), it seems understandable that you would not have known. I suppose you could have done your research, but to me that sounds like an awful lot to expect. What else would you be obliged to know? Whether he’s a cat-person or a dog-lover?
So ‘tis the season; cut yourself some slack.
For some perspective, consider that what you’re experiencing is one of the many, many downsides of traditional hierarchical management practices.
You see, in a hierarchy a disproportionate amount of organizational power is assigned to a relatively small number of individuals—or even just one, like a CEO—as you are well aware, I’m sure. Raises, promotions, the assignment of coveted projects, and other organizational rewards are furthermore often contingent upon this person’s opinion and/or assessment of you and your work. This is true even though you may have little, if any actual contact with them in the course of a normal workday. As a result, any interaction you do have with this person of influence is apt to feel as if the world is riding on it. If you’d made a similar mistake with the intern in tech support, for instance, or that guy in shipping and receiving who’s close to retirement anyway, I doubt you’d be nearly as concerned.
Alas – I wish it were different.
In fact, since it’s the holiday season, I hope you’ll forgive me for indulging in a little wishful thinking here, and describe how things could be.
In the better world I’m imagining, critical organizational decisions—including those that effect you or your career—would be made by the collective. Everyone with a vested interest in its outcome would have a say, instead of just a select powerful few. That way, any one person’s opinion, no matter who they are or what they think, would have proportionally little impact. As James Suroweicki explains in The Wisdom of Crowds:
“If you ask a large enough group of diverse, independent people [to participate in the decision-making process]…the errors each of them makes…will cancel themselves out.”
What this means for you in your present circumstance is that you wouldn’t need to worry about your professional situation (or career) being negatively impacted by a slip of the tongue. Your CEO would only have as much influence over the organizational decisions that effect you as anyone else – so presuming you haven’t accidentally alienated the rest of your colleagues, the chances of this one awkward moment with your company’s ‘top boss’ coming back to haunt you would be negligible.
But back to reality. Personally, I wouldn’t lose too much sleep over this (certainly no more than eight nights). If, however, sometime soon you find yourself in casual conversation with your CEO, it probably couldn’t hurt to acknowledge your mistake. But I wouldn’t seek him out specifically to do this. That strikes me as borderline obsessive, and may raise his eyebrows even more than your original gaffe.
Take heart too that an experienced CEO (or at least a good one) is probably not going to put much stock in this. So long as you do your work, do it well, get along well with your colleagues, and otherwise conduct yourself in a professional manner, he’s likely to be as happy as a kid opening his Hanukkah gifts – which this year is celebrated December 18th through the 26th.
(I recommend putting its dates in your calendar for next year too.)
Happy holidays, everyone!
 Suroweicki, James. The Wisdom of Crowds. 2004 (Anchor Books), p. 10.