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Treat Holidays with Care to Avoid Religious Discrimination, Harassment

Happy holidays! But which holidays? Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid ul-Adha, Kwanzaa, the winter solstice? All of the above? None of the above? One of December’s chills, at least for HR professionals, can be a little shiver of trepidation over handling employees’ varying religious needs with sufficient sensitivity.

Do you put up a tree? What kind of greeting cards do you send? Do you say “Merry Christmas” these days? Here’s a brief road map to some of the issues you may be facing this holiday season.

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Coal in your stocking
Mary Jo wants to set up a Christmas Nativity scene; Lenora has an electric menorah she’d like to light up at work. Are those decorations kosher?

The key to allowing religious symbols in the workplace is to take care not to favor one religion over another or discriminate against someone on the basis of his religion. So if Lenora is allowed to put up the menorah, Mary Jo should be allowed to display her Nativity scene.

And at least if you’re a private employer, you don’t have to remove your own religious holiday decorations if an employee complains about them so long as you’re evenhanded in recognizing all religions. Public employers should stick to displaying only secular holiday symbols, such as snowflakes and candy canes.

As Grinch-like as it sounds, you also may ban all holiday decorations, regardless of religion, provided you consistently enforce the ban year-round (watch out for Easter eggs and big red hearts).

Can I have Festivus off?
During December, you may be flooded with requests for time off to observe a religious holiday or attend services. Some companies deal with observance issues by giving employees a certain number of days to use throughout the year to observe the holiday of their choice. Other companies allow employees to swap the holidays they will work.

You generally must reasonably accommodate an employee’s request for time off for a religious observance unless it would cause an undue hardship for your company. What amounts to a “reasonable accommodation” and “undue hardship” must be assessed case by case.

An undue hardship occurs when an accommodation would impose more than a small cost or cause more than a minor disruption to your operations. You may be able to offer reasonable accommodations with these approaches:

  • providing flexible scheduling;
  • allowing voluntary substitution of assignments;
  • permitting employees to work through their lunch hour in exchange for leaving early — assuming there’s no state or local law requiring any particular meal break;
  • offering unpaid leave to observe a religious holiday (unless you offer paid leave for all other time off, in which case you must give paid leave);
  • offering staggered work hours; and
  • allowing employees to make up hours by working longer shifts.

HR Guide to Employment Law: A practical compliance reference manual covering 14 topics, including discrimination

Hardship and the holidays
Here are some questions to help determine whether an accommodation will present an undue hardship:

  • What will it cost? You need not go to great expense, and religious accommodation requirements are less extensive than those for disabled employees.
  • What will it mean to your business? If the accommodation will disrupt the business, it’s more likely to pose an undue hardship.
  • Will it violate a collective bargaining agreement or breach a contract? If so, no accommodation is required.
  • Will it infringe on others’ religious rights? A “yes” answer indicates undue hardship.
  • Will it cause safety problems? Again, a “yes” indicates undue hardship.

If you choose not to accommodate an employee, make sure you have documentation to support your decision. If you say an accommodation is too expensive, for example, you must be able to show the numbers.

So what’s the bottom line? Do whatever you can to help all of your employees feel included and comfortable during the holidays, and take good notes!

Audit your workplace policies and procedures, including employee leave with the Employment Practices Self-Audit Workbook