Is Your Holiday Policy Inclusive?

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR May 4, 2011
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“How do you handle employees who celebrate holidays other than Christian holidays?” a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) member asked in the HR Talk onlinenetworking forum of the SHRM website. Any U.S. employer that bases its holiday schedule on government-designated holidays is likely to face a similar quandary if it employs practicing Jews, Muslims or others who seek time off for religious holidays other than those celebrated by Christians.

The same dilemma can occur in Europe, where, customarily, several Christian holidays are celebrated, as well as in other locales. UPS’ holiday schedule, with a dropdown menu by country, illustrates how one company has adapted to local practices in various regions around the world.

So what should an employer do when an employee’s religious holidays are missing from a company’s list of planned closures? Employers must follow the laws and regulations of the locations in which they operate. In the U.S., for example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission provides guidanceon how to avoid religious discrimination and how to accommodate employee beliefs in the workplace.

One Extreme

Creating a holiday schedule that is inclusive of multiple beliefs can be tricky. Case in point: In March 2010, the Burlington (Vt.) School Board in Burlington voted to add a Muslim holiday and a Jewish holy day to its school calendar in an effort to maximize student attendance. It took just a few months for representatives of the Hindu community to suggest that the school district add Diwali, the holiest of Hindu holidays, to the list, according to news reports.

Similarly, attempts to accommodate one holiday in the workplace can lead to many more requests, as evidenced by another SHRM member who noted in an HR Talk posting that a “new employee turned in a list (eleven items) of religious observances she would like to take off during the year.”

While such a request might seem extreme to some, it might be legitimate.

“Observant Jews need a significant amount of time for holidays and the Sabbath,” said Judy Schaffer, an Orthodox Jew and regional manager who has had varied experiences with employers. “We generally require a minimum of 10 days per year to use for our holidays,” she explained.

But it’s not just Muslims, Jews and Hindus who seek flexible holiday policies. Melissa Carlisle said that her husband’s employer demands that he work overtime regularly, including weekends and the entire weekend of Good Friday through Easter. “We sure could use some more leniency in their work schedule,” she told SHRM Online.

But Carlisle said that her husband, who works for an electrical controls company in the South, “feels uncomfortable asking for time off for anything, especially religious observances, because of the peer pressure to put in as many hours as everyone else.”

Flexible Policies

To meet the needs of all employees, experts suggest, holiday policies should be fair and flexible.

Terry Henley, CCP, SPHR, director of compensation services at Employers Resource Association, a membership organization, said more companies are transitioning from separate vacation and sick leave policies to combined paid-time-off (PTO) policies “to provide more company control over the amount of time off taken by its employees while providing employees more flexibility with regard to when they can take time off.”

“One of the greatest advantages of such an approach to time off is that it allows more flexibility with regard to observance of religious and ethnic holidays and observances,” he told SHRM Online.

Another approach, according to Henley, is to allow each employee a specified number of floating holidays (most commonly two to four) to use at their own discretion.

Whether employees use PTO or floating holidays, it is common for employers to request advance notice of employees’ needs for leave, he noted.

Before designing or changing holiday policies, employers need to evaluate organizational and employee needs.

“The first step in developing religiously inclusive policies is to understand the diversity of religions and religious practices that exist among your employees,” said Lynda Zugec, managing director of The Workforce Consultants, such as by “forming a focus group with representatives from diverse religious backgrounds to hold discussions about needs and possibilities.”

Such policies should leave room for flexibility to accommodate varying levels of religious observance.

“Employers should be careful about establishing rigid leave policies because the enforcement of such policies may materialize into a claim for religious discrimination under Title VII,” said Lori B. Rassas, author of Employment Law: A Guide to Hiring, Managing and Firing for Employers and Employees (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business, 2010).

“For example, if an employer has a policy that only two people in a department can take time off on any given workday and three people request the day off to attend religious services, the employer might be subject to a workplace discrimination claim under Title VII for religious discrimination by the person whose request is denied if a reasonable accommodation is possible and is not offered,” she explained.

“In order to minimize the potential for such claims, employers should make it a practice to consider leave requests associated with religious practices or beliefs on a case-by-case basis to assess whether there is a way for employers to accommodate the needs of the employee in a way that is not overly burdensome on its operations,” Rassas said.

The Employee’s Role

“Employees shouldn’t wait for their managers or their company as a whole to instill a culture of work/life balance,” a Wall Street Journal blogger said April 7, 2011, after returning from an interactive conference. “You need to take matters into your own hands and set your own life-friendly practices.”

Some employees do just that when it comes to religious holidays.

“I'm a Christian and do not work on Sundays, but take it as a day of rest and worshiping God,” said Karen Reyburn, client services director for Gainsborough House in London. “When I was being interviewed for the job, I let them know that I wouldn't work or travel on Sundays because of this, and they were immediately agreeable and have never pressured me in any way,” she told SHRM Online. “They have even allowed me to travel to conferences on Saturday night and stay an extra night at the hotel so that I don't have to fly in on Sunday. 

“[At] every job I’ve ever had, one of the first things I’ve mentioned is that I won’t work on Sundays—ever,” Reyburn added. “A few times an employer has asked me to work on a Sunday or travel on a Sunday, and I just said no. I do find that some employers test you a bit on what you say you will and won’t do, but when you stand for it and never change, they realize you mean it, and they will stick by you too.”

Back to Christmas

So what should employers do when their holiday policy is tied to government-designated holiday closings?

“I have no problem with closing for Christmas. This is a Christian country,” said Schaffer. “If I want Jewish holidays to be national holidays, I can live in Israel.”

“The practice of closing on Christmas is nice for those of us not celebrating Christmas because it's an extra day off,” stated Mona Abdel-Halim, a Muslim. “But I believe all workplaces should have floating holidays—which my company does—to ensure others can take PTO when celebrating a holiday other than the national days off.”

“There is no ideal holiday policy,” Schaffer acknowledged. “As we have more cultures involved we are going to have to make holiday policies more individual. There should be give and take with each hire.”

“I have worked in places that were very intolerant and, as a result, decided to quit my job for that primary reason,” Abdel-Halim told SHRM Online. “If someone is intolerant of your beliefs, then it is difficult to have them try to relate to your perspective in other aspects of work.

“It really doesn't take much to make employees comfortable at work,” she added. “All that's needed is creating an environment where someone isn't anxious to ask for time to pray or take a holiday with or without paid time off.”

Schaffer appreciates that her employer—a firm that represents radio stations—respects her needs. “The culture of the company is one of respect. We're treated like adults and expected to behave like adults,” Schaffer told SHRM Online. “That is truly the key. Real adults respect one another.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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