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Consider Religious Beliefs When Scheduling Events

​Paula Laurita, coordinator of public services at the Athens-Limestone Public Library in Athens, Ala., and a Catholic, recently refused to attend the April 2009 state library association convention because it fell during Holy Week.

“The last day of the conference was on Good Friday, and I went to my director and I was like, ‘No, I’m not going to go to that convention,’ ” Laurita recalled. Missing the convention means that she will have to drive three hours to state library headquarters in Montgomery for another director's meeting later in 2009 to fulfill a requirement associated with state funding.

“Yes, it would have been more convenient to go to the convention for my job, but I would have missed both Holy Thursday and Good Friday services,” Laurita noted.

In 1988, while her husband was on active military duty with the Army in Vicenza, Italy, Laurita and her husband refused to attend a mandatory officers' ball scheduled on Good Friday.

Others chose to attend the service and the ball.

“The service was filled with women and gentlemen in their dress clothes ready to dash out and attend the function,” Laurita said. The timing of the ball placed some people “in a very awkward position,” she added, because “it was pretty much noted that if you were not there it is not good for your career.”

Observant Jews and Muslims often must choose between their faith and their job requirements when work-related events are scheduled on dates and at times that conflict with times of rest, fasting and prayer.

Stephanie Gertz, a Reform Jew and education assessment consultant near Boston, has dealt with conflicts between her schedule and her religion for many years. When she was a graduate student at the University of Virginia, the head of her psychology department—who was Jewish—insisted that she attend a department meeting luncheon on Rosh Hashana.

“At my first job, the HR rep was not going to let me take the High Holidays off because they fell during my first month” on the job, Gertz recalled. Thankfully, the HR manager at the teacher licensure testing company intervened.

But in a recent job with a K-12 assessment company run by a major publishing company, Gertz said, an important meeting of the top 10 senior managers was held on Yom Kippur and wasn’t rescheduled, “even though it could have been quite easily.” Gertz said she wasn’t penalized for not attending but said “it was professionally difficult” because it was the first time senior staff met with the new company president.

Inclusive Scheduling

An organization can alienate more than just employees when planned events coincide with religious observances.

For example, the Detroit Tigers baseball team recently upset some Roman Catholics when it scheduled its home opener for Good Friday, the Friday before Easter. Michael Ochab, a 47-year-old Tigers fan, reportedly missed his first opener in 20 years this year to attend church services.

"Nobody is saying baseball isn't big, but Good Friday is really big," The Rev. Ed Vilkauskas of Detroit's St. Mary's Catholic Church told The Detroit News. "It's 2,000 years old."

But in some cases organizations adjust their schedules to accommodate various beliefs.

For example, in April 2009, administrators at Columbia University in New York decided to change the date of its 2010 commencement ceremony because it conflicted with Shavuot, a major Jewish holiday. The decision came despite opposition from the University Senate, whose members argued that because the university is a secular institution its calendar shouldn’t revolve around religious holidays.

Yet such a change will make it possible for Jewish students, their families and university employees to participate in the event and to celebrate the holiday, should they choose to do so.

Legal Implications

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs unless doing so causes an undue burden on the employers.

Michelle Weber, assistant program director for religious diversity in the workplace for the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding in New York, told SHRM Online that claims of religious discrimination are highly fact-specific and turn on the particulars of the claimant’s situation, such as whether events were scheduled to exclude the person purposely, which Weber said “would obviously be discriminatory,” or whether it was incidental, such as saying “staff meetings are always Friday afternoons”—a move that could exclude Orthodox Jews.

To head off potential problems, Weber said, employers should keep a calendar of important religious dates, know what celebrations are going on in the community and “talk to employees about their specific needs and how they observe their holy days,” then use that information to avoid scheduling conflicts “as best they can.”

Rachel Maryles, Tanenbaum’s program associate for religious diversity in the workplace, says that HR professionals utilize the holiday function in the Microsoft Outlook calendar to import religious and national holidays, then disseminate that information to the manager level. Users can select countries whose holidays they’d like to add or add religious holidays by selecting from among terms that include Christian, Islamic and Jewish. “If your company does business in India, you may just want to add that country,” Maryles noted.

Maryles said another good resource is the BBC Religion and Ethics web site.

But because people of various faiths vary in the extent to how observant they are, Maryles said, it’s critical to speak to individuals to learn more about what and how they observe religious events.

For example, a manager planning a fall team-building event for late September might notice on her calendar that Sept. 21, 2009, is a Muslim religious holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan, called Eid ul-Fitr.

“One Muslim employee may be observing the Eid and not be able to attend the team-building event, while another Muslim employee may not be observing the Eid at all,” Maryles explained.

Kim Drumgo, chief diversity official at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC) in Chapel Hill, said that “addressing and accommodating all religious observances for a large and diverse workforce could be quite a daunting task for any employer.”

BCBSNC’s diversity calendar outlines many holidays and observances “of particular importance to our employees,” Drumgo said. The calendar is used to educate its workforce about various holidays and observances and to help avoid scheduling events that might conflict with religious holidays or observances.

The BCBSNC’s calendar is posted on the company’s intranet and updated regularly using and information from company groups and employee networks.

HR’s Role

“I think the HR professional has a unique opportunity to play a role in trying to solve this problem for a company, because HR professionals are already the conduit for employee complaints or employee requests for accommodations,” said Manesh K. Rath, an attorney with Keller and Heckman in Washington, D.C., and former member of the board of directors and vice president for legislative affairs for the Northern Virginia Society for Human Resource Management.

“Some employers have developed a sense, over time, of the religious makeup of most of their workforce and will consult those various religious calendars before scheduling something important,” Rath said. “But there is always someone whose religious holidays you don’t know, or which dates on that religious calendar are important to them.Because this is inevitable, the burden rests with an employee to notify an employer of any hardships which a meeting or event may cause.”

When conflicts do arise, Weber said, they should be “considered on a case-by-case basis” by asking questions such as “is the employee essential to this meeting/event? Does it hurt the employee professionally if he or she is excluded?” And, most importantly, is there another day or time when the event could be held?

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.


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