By Emily C. Lamb
The end of the year is a time of joy and celebration as much of the American workforce observes one or more of the religious holidays. Yet employers sometimes struggle as to how to celebrate these holidays while recognizing the diversity of religious beliefs. As the holiday season rolls into full swing, it is particularly important for employers to remember their obligation to accommodate employees’ requests to observe religious practices.
Both Federal and state law make it unlawful for employees to discriminate against employees on the basis of religion. “Religion” includes all aspects of religious observance, practice, and beliefs. It includes not only traditionally recognized religions, but also unorganized religions and non-traditional belief systems. Employers must make reasonable accommodations to the sincerely held religious beliefs of employees when the accommodations can be made without undue hardship. In other words, an employer must accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs unless the employer can show that the accommodation request imposes more than minimal cost to the operation of the employer’s business.
One commonly recognized reasonable accommodation is granting employees time off for religious observances. While many employers in the United States provide time off for the traditional Christian holidays, the ever growing diversity of the American workforce means that employers need to be able to accommodate a variety of religious beliefs and practices. This means that employers should adopt a more flexible attitude towards employees whose religious beliefs don’t coincide with a traditional work schedule.
One approach is to use “floating holidays,” which allow employees to take paid time off for holidays that are not included on the company calendar. Another approach is to permit employees to work calendared holidays in exchange for paid days off to celebrate non-calendared religious holidays. A third and increasingly popular option is the use of paid time off. This highly flexible approach gives employees a set number of hours of paid leave which the employees may use for any reason, including holidays.
Religious observance requests are not necessarily limited to time off of work. They may include a variety of requests ranging from exceptions to dress code standards, modifications of work schedules, and authorization of various expressions of religion in the workplace such as the display of religious symbols. As with requests for time off, employers should remain flexible and make reasonable accommodations to the religious needs of employees where such accommodations can be made without undue hardship.
Employers always need to be mindful of all requests for religious accommodation. This is especially important during this time of year when employers are likely to make requests to observe an array of religious holidays. By remaining flexible and engaging with employees to determine how to best accommodate employees’ requests while maintaining a successful work environment, employers can fulfill their legal obligations while enabling their employees to fully celebrate the holiday season.