The holiday season may present a quandary for employers: how to accommodate various religious beliefs and practices in the workplace.
Most employers are aware of the major religions in America — Protestant Christianity, Roman Catholicism and Judaism — but there may also be other religions represented in an employer’s workforce.
“We do encounter an employer who will say, ‘I’ve never heard of this religion,’ but it may well be a religion that is covered by Title VII,” said George Russo, director of the Southern Colorado regional office of Employers Council.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, and Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act also lists religion as a protected class.
The general legal standard for compliance is that “employers need to make reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs that don’t cause an undue hardship on the employer,” Russo said.
Jen DeFranco, human resources consultant at Employers Council, recommends that employers have an Equal Employment Opportunity policy that “would allow for an employee to say, ‘I need a religious accommodation,’ and that as an employer, we will go through that interactive process to make sure it’s considered in a fair way.”
Employers who embrace one religion in the workplace should embrace all religions, said Reanna Werner, owner and chief problem solver at HR Branches.
“You have to understand and embrace various belief systems, especially this time of year, because there are so many different holidays and so many different reasons for celebration,” Werner said.
Employers should be aware of the following celebrations coming up this month, in addition to Christmas.
•Hanukkah, also called the Festival of Lights, commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the second century B.C. after the end of the Syrian occupation that denied the Jews the right to practice their religion. People who practice Judaism celebrate Hanukkah Dec. 18-26 this year.
•Kwanzaa, a weeklong celebration Dec. 26-Jan. 1 that honors African heritage in African-American culture, is a cultural rather than a religious observance but may be celebrated by members of a protected class.
•The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, celebrated by Roman Catholics on Dec. 8, and the Feast of St. Stephen, also called Boxing Day, on Dec. 26, which commemorates the life of the saint who became the first Christian martyr, may also be observed by some employees.
Other major holidays during the year include:
•Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, which marks the time when Muhammad received the revelations that became the Quran, to be celebrated next on March 22-April 21, 2023;
•Passover, celebrated in Judaism to commemorate the emancipation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, April 5-13, 2023; and
•Wesak, celebrated in Buddhism on the day of the full moon in May to commemorate the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death, to be celebrated May 5, 2023.
TITLE VII IN PRACTICE
Under Title VII, an employee can display or practice their religion, Russo said.
“If an employer allows pictures in the office, the employee could choose to have a picture that has religious beliefs displayed,” he said. Such displays couldn’t be prohibited unless the employer bans the display of all pictures.
Prayer also would be permissible, though “it gets a little bit tricky if a private organization is telling someone to pray,” he said.
“Let’s say that [a private employer] was requiring all individuals to go through a Christian prayer and someone was Muslim,” Russo said. “That could potentially get you into a tricky legal area.”
Russo noted that different rules apply to religious entities or nonprofits such as churches or schools with religious affiliations, where common or group prayer may be permitted.
Proselytizing that creates a disturbance or interferes with other employees’ ability to get their work done can be addressed by a private employer.
“The employer could address that just like if someone was talking about their favorite pie recipe too much,” Russo said.
The undue hardship standard with regard to Title VII issues is different than the undue hardship standard for the Americans with Disabilities Act and sometimes causes confusion, he said.
Under Title VII, “the standard essentially is, if it causes any disruption or monetary issues, the employer could argue that it is an undue hardship,” he said. “With the ADA, employers are expected to spend a certain amount of money, maybe retrofitting their offices to make sure that someone with a disability could work there.”
If Christian employees are allowed to pray, “Muslim employees or Jewish employees should also be allowed to pray,” he said. That accommodation would not cost money or cause undue disruption.
Russo said case law also has addressed the wearing of a headscarf; “that doesn’t cost the employer money, and they should probably accommodate that,” he said.
Employers should be on the lookout for harassment based on religious beliefs, Russo said.
“You would have to stop that, just like you would have to stop it based on national origin or sex or any other protected class.”
The best way to head off any of these issues is to create an environment in which employees feel safe to be who they are, DeFranco said.
“Have a system where employees can speak to their supervisors or HR if there’s a situation where they feel that a line has been crossed,” she said, “and just enforcing and not tolerating any type of language or words that are hurtful and not inclusive to others, and being willing to take action based on that.”
“You have to understand and embrace various belief systems.” — Reanna Werner
It’s helpful to train managers on how to spot discrimination and what to do if they see it, Russo said.
Awareness about other religions can head off a situation like one Werner ran across recently.
“I was talking with an HR friend of mine who is Jewish,” she said. “The owner of his company came to him and said, ‘I want to buy hams for everybody for Christmas.’ My friend said, ‘Well, what about the folks who don’t eat ham?’ And he said, ‘Oh, well, we don’t have that problem here.’
“That’s when it turns into a problem,” she said. “A lot of people don’t eat pork. A lot of people don’t eat cow.”
Holiday parties also are a consideration, especially if employees are required to attend.
“A lot of companies are going to be looking at Christmas parties that include food and gifts,” she said. “How does that apply to your Jehovah’s Witness employee who does not celebrate these holidays? Is there some sort of cultural stigma that employees must show up to these parties? Make sure you’re acknowledging and being sensitive to that.”
Werner said she has heard of employers who acknowledge every holiday and display information about Hanukkah, Ramadan and other belief systems.
“That lends itself to a really good, inclusive working environment where people feel heard and safe,” she said.
Employers should also look at their dress codes to make sure they do not impede an employee’s ability to follow their belief system in ways such as wearing a beard or turban, Werner said.
“In your handbook, you should always have a policy that acknowledges the organization does not discriminate based on religious belief and will make reasonable accommodations to allow employees to meet the needs of their belief system,” she said.
“In addition, employers should have an anti-harassment policy that specifically addresses religious beliefs and how they strive to maintain a work environment that’s free of religious-based harassment.”
Flexible holiday benefits are an increasingly popular way to accommodate employees’ needs for time off to practice their religion, Werner said.
“Rather than having standard holidays — Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas — here at HR Branches we don’t assign any holidays. We let our employees choose the holidays they want to celebrate,” she said. “They get 10 holidays per year, and they choose what they use them for.”
Companies with standard holiday schedules could allow employees to swap within the schedule, so that a Jewish employee could swap out the Christmas holiday for a day of Hanukkah, she said.
“You hear a lot of people saying, ‘Well, it’s taking away from the Christmas spirit, and I want to say Merry Christmas,’” Werner said.
“Acknowledging other belief systems and becoming more inclusive to other faiths isn’t about eliminating Christmas. It’s about embracing everybody and appreciating who they are and what they and their belief system give to this world,” she said. “I think that’s really important for people to see.”