Should HR Rename, Reallocate Holiday Time Off to Be More Inclusive?

Some organizations are rethinking giving all employees leave around traditional U.S. holidays

By Dana Wilkie Nov 21, 2017
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​In a country whose diverse workers embrace many religions and cultures, does it make sense for a company to rename vacation days that revolve around Christian holidays—like "Christmas break" and "Easter break"—or even to eliminate these traditional days and let employees pick their own holidays to take time off?

Some companies are rethinking the workplace practice of giving all employees leave around traditional U.S. holidays. And the idea recently sparked a spirited debate on a SHRM Connect online discussion.

"Should I change the names for our 2018 holidays?" asked Elizabeth Larter, HR manager at Omni-ID, a vendor of radio-frequency identification tags based in Rochester, N.Y. "For example, change Good Friday to Spring Holiday, and change Christmas and the day after to Winter Holidays? Or is that taking it too far? I want to be sensitive to our diverse employee population, but I can't help [but] feel that it might be going overboard."

Several HR professionals wrote that changing holiday names was, indeed, going overboard. David Barron, an attorney with Cozen O'Connor in Houston, agrees with them.

"It is unnecessary and counterproductive to rename a work holiday to avoid references to religious dates," Barron said. "Designating Dec. 25 as a 'winter holiday' on the company calendar won't pacify those offended by religious holidays and will likely stir up consternation amongst Christian employees. It just creates a potential conflict point, with very little benefit to the company."

Moreover, he said, there could be legal implications.

[SHRM members-only Express Request: Leave for Religious Observances]

"There is a risk that the practice backfires and leads to complaints of harassment from Christian employees," he noted. "Is changing the official name of a company holiday on the calendar illegal? No. That said, if an employee already felt that his or her faith was not being fairly accommodated, or that he or she was a victim of harassment because of religious faith, such a move could trigger an increased focus on the issue, and potentially a legal claim. Why risk someone going to the press or making a viral social media post on the subject?"

Others on the SHRM Connect discussion, however, said companies should try to be inclusive.

"Many multicultural companies list holidays as they are celebrated in their country," wrote Denise Baggett, an HR professional at Cairo, Ga.-based Ira Higdon Grocery Company, a wholesale grocery warehouse that supplies grocers in three states. "We should not change the names of the existing holidays, just add new ones to what the company recognizes."

Morgan Neems is HR administrator at IVCi LLC in Hauppauge, N.Y., which provides audio and videoconferencing and voice and cloud solutions. She wrote that companies should consider what their employees are saying about the issue.

"I think it really depends on your employee population, how diverse you perceive them to be, and if you've had any complaints regarding your holiday policy or requests to change it," she wrote.

Larter said in an interview with SHRM Online that she decided not to change the names of her company's holiday breaks. However, she pushed to give employees two floating holidays, which they could use instead of the already-named holidays. The company didn't approve her suggestion, she said.

Recently, Spotify—the world's leading music streaming service—told employees that they're no longer required to observe public holidays. Instead, all employees have the option to swap traditional days off like Christmas for days off of their choosing, like Yom Kippur  or Diwali. The new holiday policy is designed to recognize the cultural and religious diversity of Spotify employees.

"Sometimes old traditions need to be updated," said Cord Himelstein, vice president of marketing and communications for HALO Recognition, an employee rewards and incentives company based in Long Island City, N.Y. "The Millennial workforce … is more diverse than any other generation before it. We all have an annual schedule of federal holidays that everyone who works is pretty hip to, but people are complex and diverse, so not all of these holidays are going to be compatible with every person. Offering to trade them up is the natural and elegant solution, and it harms nobody in the process. Also, a huge benefit: With people taking off on different holidays than each other, it can make it easier to balance the workload."

Barron pointed out, however, that Spotify's approach may not work for other companies.

"Many companies, like Spotify, have moved toward flexible arrangements such as working from home, unlimited vacations, et cetera," he said. "In that type of environment, allowing flexible holiday choices may be a good idea. Not every business and job, however, fits into that mold."

For instance, he noted, some companies shut down entirely on holidays like Christmas, making it difficult to allow employees to pick and choose holidays to observe. For example, allowing a Jewish employee to work Christmas in lieu of a Jewish holiday "doesn't work well if the business is closed on Christmas."

However, he pointed out, Spotify's approach could be helpful at companies where some workers must be on the clock on holidays.

"Some businesses need employees to work holidays because of the 24/7 nature of the industry," he said. "In these types of businesses, allowing employees to pick alternate holidays works well by ensuring coverage and allowing employee flexibility."

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