- Religious celebrations in the workplace

Should companies put a blanket ban on all religious celebrations being represented in the working environment or is that a step too far? With so many religions represented in the UK, it is inevitable that questions will occasionally come up over how, if at all, to mark religious events. Should staff exchange gifts i.e. Easter eggs, Diwali Lanterns, Christmas treats? Do we call the celebration by its religious name i.e. Christmas, or a more neutral alternative (i.e. festival of light?) Is it appropriate to decorate the workplace and if so, how should it be decorated?

Living in such a religiously diverse country, it’s important to find ways to accommodate and embrace your employees’ beliefs, not just in a legal sense, but for creating a positive, peaceful and productive company culture.

Be Observant

Be aware of religious events your employees are observing and, whenever possible, plan projects to accommodate them. Be flexible with schedules so that employees that need to pray at specific times of days can meet their religious duties or, if practical to do so, allow them to swap days and/or shifts. If space allows, have a ‘quiet’ room where these practices can be observed away from any workplace noise and distraction.

Of course, some employees may want time off instead, to fully partake in their religious celebrations. As with all annual leave requests they must still observe the procedures in place and ask for permission first. Whilst you are under no legal obligation to grant their request, consideration by both parties is advisable and whenever possible granting the leave preferable. Consider adding annual ‘floating’ holidays for celebrations that change year on year (i.e. Diwali), specifically to accommodate this. If time off is not possible, explain your reasons fully so that the employee is not left to believe it is an act of discrimination. Transparency, flexibility and consideration all help towards a harmonious and respectful working environment.

Consider if there are any business or Health and Safety implications with employees observing certain religious events whilst working, such as Ramadan, which involves fasting (from food and drink) for the hours between sunrise and sunset. Employees must inform you if they plan to fast. This is especially important if they drive or operate machinery, as fasting can cause dizziness, fatigue and lost concentration.

Decorations

Many religious celebrations occur at the end of the year, with Christmas the most celebrated in the UK. There’s no reason to remove symbols of Christmas to avoid claims of discrimination though, as long as you recognise other religious celebrations throughout the year.

If you wish to put up a Christmas tree, consider including other items that celebrate other faiths represented in your workplace, such as a menorah (Jewish) or a Bodhi Day tree (Buddhist).

Celebrate your staff’s religions by inviting them to decorate their own work areas accordingly.

However, if you feel a traditional Christmas display may cause offence, decorate with non-religious items like snowmen and gingerbread houses. As for hanging mistletoe… let’s just not do that, unless you want a potential sexual harassment claim! Refresh your memory with the January 2018 Blog.

Gift Giving

Easter is almost here, so being forearmed and prepared is key. Do a quick search online and you’ll see reports of past discrimination claims against employers for organising Easter Egg hunts with gifts, when not all employees were Christian. Although it can be argued that there are no bunnies, chicks or chocolate eggs in the Bible, they are undoubtedly symbols of this Christian celebration.

Instead of contests and gift swapping, plan charitable projects for your staff, such as creating food packages for shelters or toy collections for disadvantaged children. Regardless of faith, everyone likes to feel good.

Of course, some employees will still choose to exchange gifts. To avoid a tense workplace, hurt feelings, or worse, claims of discrimination from those left out, create a policy that requires employees exchange any gifts outside of the workplace during non-work hours.

Terminology

Are you worried that saying or writing “Merry Christmas” will upset non-Christian colleagues? Or that by not saying it at all, you’ll appear to be declaring war on Christmas to everyone else? If you know the faith of your recipient, feel free to customise your greeting to suit them. But when in doubt, “Season’s Greetings” works well for everyone.

Happy celebrations to all in 2018. Whatever your beliefs are, or are not, may they be harmonious, educating, fulfilling, shared and respected.

Avoiding accusations of discrimination in the workplace doesn’t mean having to hide all traces of religion. The key is to find a balance of making sure all employees feel seen, respected and fairly treated. If you are struggling to work out what support you should be offering to your employees, contact us on 01582 883299 or email su@suallen.co.uk.