Religion in the Workplace: What Employers Need to Know

Ramadan, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Christmas all occur at the end of the calendar year—not to mention Las Posadas, Three King's Day and Winter Solstice!

Employers, HR professionals and managers struggle with how to celebrate these holidays, recognize the diversity of religious beliefs and practices, and consider the issues of non-religious employees who do not partake in these holidays. Should a Christmas tree be placed near the reception desk? A menorah? Both - or perhaps nothing at all?

A Gallup poll states that 90% of American adults say that religion is either very important or fairly important in their lives. And with that, arises workplace conflicts. Charges of religious discrimination in the workplace have risen 43% since 1990. This has led to a piece of pending legislation in Congress called "The Workplace Religious Freedom Act," which will place an increased burden on employers to meet employee requests for religious accommodation.

Should employers take note of all of this? Most definitely. And why? It's not just because of the legislation, or the legal implications. It's also because it'll make your workplace more productive. It's because religion may be the most important element in your employees' personal lives and it needs to be respected as such.

What can employers do to accommodate religious expression and observance by employees? Fortunately, such accommodations involve minimal costs. But they do require managerial planning.

  • Substitute or swap shifts for employees who request time off for religious reasons.
  • Provide flexible scheduling during the day. Allow flexible arrival and departure times, as well as flexible work breaks. Even allow employees to exchange meal breaks for an early departure from the office.
  • Add a floating holiday or two that your employees can use to satisfy religious duties without disrupting schedules. If you do not offer a floating holiday option, this would be a great time to introduce this benefit to your employees and really give them something to celebrate.

Here are some other important questions and answers regarding religion in the workplace:

How far must you go to accommodate a religious employee's dress or personal appearance?

Head coverings, robes, and religious insignias may deviate from employer dress codes and from co-worker expectations. In these circumstances, it's appropriate to reevaluate the workplace dress code. In the past, companies have received legal reprisal for forbidding religious dress or head coverings, long hair or beards, and other tokens of faith. Regardless of local and state jurisdictions, the courts are unlikely to be sympathetic to an employer who makes an issue of religious dress - especially if the employee's personal appearance does nothing to interfere with business operations.

Is it appropriate for employees to share their religious beliefs with co-workers?

Proselytizing in the workplace can be a problem area. Members of many religious faiths believe their responsibilities include evangelizing their beliefs to others, and some may take advantage of the holidays to carry out their mission. An employer has the right to limit conduct that interferes with work. However, a ban on any discussion relating to religion would almost certainly run afoul of Title VII, a portion of the Civil Rights Act that allows for freedom of religious expression. An employer does have the right to enforce a legitimate, non-discriminatory policy prohibiting the discussion of non work-related issues that other employees find offensive.

What can a company do to celebrate the holidays together?

There's a right and wrong way to do it, but you can make the most of a religious season with your employees. Holiday events are a great way to reduce stress, build teams, and help shape a positive company culture.

Here are some tips:

  • Make an effort to avoid major religious holidays when planning major work-related projects and deadlines.
  • Use common sense when planning holiday communications and parties. Not all employees celebrate Christmas or appreciate Christmas cards, although most employees do like to socialize and receive merit-related bonuses. Substitute the words "New Year's," "End-of Year," or "Holiday" for "Christmas" when sending out invitations, cards and bonuses.
  • Instead of bringing in a Christmas tree, invite your employees to decorate an area of the office with ornaments from their faiths and ethnic backgrounds. A friendly display can be a great way to recognize the diversity of religious practices and customs in your workforce.
  • Instead of exchanging gifts, plan events that will make your employees feel good. Collect canned foods for your local food pantry. Donate money to a local charity in your company's name. Contact a local social service agency for information about a needy family, then collect and buy gifts for the family's children.

Be sensitive, respectful and understanding of your employee's religious beliefs. It's important that all your employees are treated fairly and are comfortable in the workplace – for everyone's benefit!