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Those who say it cannot be done, should not interrupt those doing it.
— Chinese Proverb
 
 

Navigating the Holidays: How to Handle Religion in a Diverse Workplace

The adage, “don’t talk about religion or politics” certainly has resonated during this year’s contentious election season.  The press published scores of stories describing people being unfriended by their Facebook friends over their political views.  Various media outlets reported that, in anticipation of the Thanksgiving holiday, mental health professionals were counseling families on how to avoid a knock-down, drag-out fight around the turkey. 

As we approach the holiday season, religious observance and accommodation may also touch off heated dialogue on a scale like that of political rhetoric. Per the 2015 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) statistics, complaints based on religious discrimination have increased 41% since 1997.

It can be a sticky situation as companies struggle to decide if, for example, a menorah should be lit, a Christmas tree put up, or a Kwanzaa candelabra displayed. Instituting clear, unbiased policies and enforcing them consistently will assist your human resources staff in not losing their minds during the holidays. 

That sounds good in theory, but what does this mean in every day practice?  A first step is to review your company policies with your human resources professionals and legal counsel.  The policies you will want to evaluate may vary from requests for time off to religious attire to decorations in public and private spaces.  The key here is to be proactive, clear, and consistent.  We recommend that you have answers for your employees before they ask and, of course, apply the policies in an unbiased manner.  Similarly, you will want to review requests for religious accommodation in accordance with your policy.  Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employer may grant reasonable requests for religious accommodation if there is a minimal impact on the business.  Legal counsel will be able to provide guidance on requests that are generally viewed as reasonable, and those that are interpreted as overly burdensome for an employer to accommodate. 

In addition to establishing clear written policies, some companies that actively promote inclusivity within their corporate culture recommend more progressive ideas to mitigating the risk of a discrimination complaint.  For example, studies show that an employer that recognizes and respects religious diversity can enhance morale and productivity by offering floating religious holidays.  A recent survey by DiversityInc, a company that evaluates and ranks businesses based on their diversity practices, reported that in 2003, only 42% of its Top 50 companies offered time off for religious observance.  In 2012, 74% of the Top 50 companies offered floating religious holidays. These companies reported an increase in productivity, which they attributed to a reduction in absenteeism, after establishing formal processes for accommodating religious observance.  This same DiversityInc study also reported that 70% of its Top 50 companies offer onsite areas for religious observance compared to 32% in 2003.  Employees are less likely to sue their employer when they feel they are being treated with dignity and respect.

For employers, the holidays can be fraught with the potential for discrimination claims and litigation arising from employee issues.  In many cases, the risk posed by these concerns can be minimized by creating a respectful corporate culture buttressed by clear, unbiased policies that are applied consistently and with sensitivity. 

Workplace FactFinders is available to assess your workplace culture and current policies and processes.  For more information on how we can help you gain more peace of mind during the holiday season, please contact us at (844) 321-9733 or send us an email at info@workplacefactfinders.com

Please be advised that the information contained in this article is not legal advice and should not be relied upon as such.  Employers should consult their attorneys for legal advice.

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