As we prepare for our holiday season, which is anchored by the celebration of Christmas, it is important to note that there are many other religious holidays that occur within the next few weeks.
For example, Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, takes place between November 27 and December 5 this year. December 8 marks Buddha’s day of enlightenment, otherwise known as the Buddhist holiday Bodhi Day. Kwanzaa will be celebrated between December 26 and January 1. January 14 marks the Hindu high–holiday of Makar Sankranti and also the birthday of the Profit Muhammad – an event that is celebrated by certain Muslim sects. And don’t forget that Pagans will celebrate the Solstice on December 21.
Why should you care? Think of it this way - what will you do if someone asks for one of these days off? Before you make your decision, let’s first explore the various laws governing workplace protections concerning observance of religious holidays.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from treating workers differently because of their religion or discriminating against them based on their religion. It is important to remember that Title VII forbids all types of discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, rate of pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits and any other term or condition of employment. Essentially, Title VII offers two protections to employees, that they must not be treated differently because of their religion and that you, as the employer, must make a good faith effort to accommodate their religious/work conflict requests.
So, what does that mean for you? Generally speaking, you need to make a good faith effort to honor an employee’s request to practice their faith or celebrate certain religious holidays. Employment law dictates that employers may be subject to potential legal problems and hefty fines if they arbitrarily deny these rights without a valid business reason. For example, an employee may be entitled to back pay and pain and suffering damages if an adverse employment action is taken based on religious discrimination. Bottom line – you cannot deny such requests because you don’t believe in the holiday, lack respect for that certain faith or don’t have much regard for that particular tradition or celebration.
You may deny the request but only if it places an undue hardship on the company, such as would result in a severe loss in profits, business operations or costs. Even then you would need to show that you explored other alternatives before denying the request.
Employers are not required to accommodate all their employees’ needs, and it is important to note that the law applies only to those employers with more than 15 employees (although state laws vary). And you are allowed to request supporting information about your employee’s bona fide religious beliefs and practices. But you may not request proof of the individual’s affiliation to the religion such as a note from clergy, etc.
If there is no foreseen undue hardship, however, then you must reasonably accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices. This applies not only to requests for days off but also schedule changes or leave for religious observances. It may also include such things as dress or customs that are practiced for religious reasons. These might include, for example, wearing the Jewish yarmulke, Muslim hijab or Rastafarian dreadlocks. Also, if an employee requests special prayer time during work hours, and it cannot be demonstrated that it will pose an undue hardship on the employer’s business, then the accommodation must be granted.
The best practice is to try to make a reasonable accommodation whenever possible that will allow the employee to celebrate his holiday and practice his faith. Showing a good faith effort to accommodate such request can improve morale and retention efforts. And if you are uncertain what is needed, talk with your employees to learn more about their culture and religious traditions.
If you don’t have one already, you will want to create a well-communicated anti-harassment policy that also covers religious harassment, what types of behaviors are prohibited, reporting guidelines and impartial investigations with non-retaliation clauses and clearly states your commitment to prompt and appropriate corrective action immediately following the investigative outcome.
As many of us prepare to celebrate the peace, love and happiness as part of our faiths, recognizing and respecting the faith celebrations of others ensures that we will enjoy a diverse, healthy and compliant workplace in 2014. Happy Holidays!