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Holiday Stress: Preventing Religious Discrimination

The tension begins in October with concerns about religious and spiritual groups that do not celebrate Halloween. In Massachusetts, that concern has led some schools to ban the traditional Halloween march of children in costume and to prohibit costumes in the classroom.

Then the tension escalates as someone starts a discussion about how to name the holiday party, how to greet employees near Kwanza, Christmas, Chanukkah and other winter celebrations and how to acknowledge employees who do not celebrate any religious holidays.

Some people are antagonized by a generic “happy holidays” greeting, but I once heard what I considered a sensible response to that attitude. The response was, “When you greet people, you are wishing them a good day in their lives, not yours. If you do not know what holiday they observe, then good manners suggest a ‘Happy Holidays’ greeting.”

Good manners are an excellent rule to follow whenever you are uncertain of an employee’s religious practices. Being knowledgeable about different religious traditions can also help you react appropriately.

But beyond that, you must be careful not to practice religious discrimination even inadvertently, or you may expose your company to lawsuits and fines. Unless your company has a specific religious mission, your employee handbook should emphasize nondiscrimination. Even a general statement of belief (such as, “we follow God’s will in all we do”) is unacceptable. If the majority of your employees share a specific religious belief, you must be careful that they do not create an environment that is hostile to other beliefs or you may open your company to a claim of harassment. These are equivalent to the rules designed to prevent discrimination by gender or physical ability.

You are expected to make reasonable accommodations for individuals to observe their religion (for example, time off for high holy days or acceptance of different dress codes) if the accommodations will not cause undue hardship for the company in conducting business. Companies should also make reasonable accommodations for those who prefer not to participate in religion; for example, they should be able to arrive late or leave early to avoid invocations at company meetings.

HR Compliance 101 can help you develop policies and procedures so that you, your employees and your company enjoy the holiday season (and every day thereafter) without crossing the line into religious discrimination or harassment.

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