Business Insurance

Finding Holiday Harmony with a Diverse Workforce

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By Todd Anderson, HR Director, GBS Benefits

Religious practices and diversity are increasing in the United States, and that trend is presenting new challenges for employers. One common form of religious expression that affects the workplace involves employees’ requests for accommodations to observe their religious holidays.

Title VII prohibits religious discrimination
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from religious discrimination. It is an unlawful employment practice under Title VII “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of [his] . . . religion.”

Title VII broadly defines “religion” to include all aspects of religious observance and practice as well as belief. You must accommodate a current or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice unless doing so would cause your business an undue hardship. The following is a brief breakdown of the regulation.

What is a religious accommodation?
During the holiday season, requests for religious accommodations may increase – you may even face multiple requests for accommodations on the same day. Here is an example: A Buddhist employee requests time off on December 8 to observe Bodhi Day, and you grant the request. Later, a Catholic employee requests time off on December 8 to observe the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Allowing both employees to be absent will cause an undue hardship. What do you do?

First, remember that any request for accommodation for a religious practice must be based on a sincerely-held religious belief – you may need to consider whether attending the religious observance is required by the religious tenets or beliefs. In other words, does the Buddhist faith require followers to observe Bodhi Day by attending religious services? If so, can the employee attend a service that doesn’t conflict with the workday? Likewise, consider whether the Catholic faith requires followers to observe holy days by attending Mass. If so, can the employee attend Mass outside work hours or at a time that doesn’t conflict with the Buddhist service?

You are permitted to request that an employee verify the validity of the religious activity by bringing back a church bulletin or other evidence of participation. Remember, however, if you request such verification, you must request it from all employees making similar requests.

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. “Reasonable accommodations” and “undue hardships” must be assessed case by case. You may be able to offer reasonable accommodations by:

  • Providing flexible scheduling;
  • Allowing voluntary substitution of assignments;
  • 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; or
  • Allowing employees to make up hours by working longer shifts.

What is an Undue Hardship?
An undue hardship occurs when an accommodation would impose more than a small cost or cause more than a minor disruption to your operations. Here are some questions to help determine whether an accommodation will present an undue hardship:

What will it cost?
You don’t have to go to great expense for the accommodation to become a hardship, 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 is 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 present a safety hazard?
Again, a “yes” indicates undue hardship.

If you choose not to accommodate an employee, make sure you have documentation to support your decision.

Religious displays at work
During the holiday season, religious discussions can implicitly become a hot topic around the office, especially if your company is deciding whether to decorate the workplace or employees are thinking about decking out their individual workspaces.

You may allow religious symbolism in your workplace if you take care not to favor one religion over another or discriminate against someone on the basis of his religion. And you do not have to remove religious holiday decorations if an employee complains about them so long as you remain evenhanded in your approach to recognizing all religions.

Holiday Expressions
Greetings such as, “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukah,” etc. are generally offered as expressions of goodwill and a wish for a happy holiday season. Very rarely are these expressions designed to offend or create controversy. Those who are offended by such greetings should be reminded of the spirit in which the greeting was offered, not whether it happens to coincide with his/her particular religious beliefs.

Bottom line
The holidays should be a time of joy and celebration. Employers can do a lot to avoid tensions caused by clashing religions and world views by focusing holiday celebrations around activities that unite employees. Be as sensitive and accommodating as possible when it comes to employees’ requests for time to celebrate their chosen holidays.

Contact your Leavitt Group advisor for more information about your employee policies and Human Resource questions.

The coverages discussed herein are for illustrative purposes only. The terms and conditions of your specific policy may differ from those described. Please consult the provisions of your policy for the terms, conditions, and exclusions that apply to your coverage.