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Religious inclusion requires year-round attention

U.S. employers often treat “the holiday season” as the period from November to January each year, says Mark Fowler of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, and design policies to fit U.S. norms. But these practices can exclude those with other religious beliefs.

During a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) webinar held Sept. 5, 2012, Fowler, managing director of programs for Tanenbaum, discussed a number of holidays during his presentation, including Sukkot, a Jewish holiday that occurs in the fall. A key element of the holiday is the erecting and use of a Sukkah -- a walled dwelling covered with plant material -- to symbolize the kind of accommodations the Jews lived in during their years in the desert. Fowler said he knows of an employee who requested permission to erect a sukkah in his company’s lobby as a learning opportunity for others.

And Fowler noted that some employees avoid participating in events perceived by many as secular in nature, such as Halloween and Valentine’s Day, because the holidays actually have religious roots. Employers should be prepared for and sensitive to a variety of employee reactions if employee social events are held in conjunction with such holidays.

Though he used the webinar to educate participants about a variety of holidays, Fowler was quick to add that “It is impossible for you to learn everything about every religion.” But he said employers should increase their awareness of “the many ways that religion and holidays come into play in the workplace.

“The best approach is to have practices that allow you to address the needs of the employees you have,” he explained. Even those who identify with a Christian tradition might practice their beliefs in very different ways, he noted. For example, one webinar participant noted that a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church -- a Christian denomination -- requested time off on Saturdays for the weekly Sabbath.

Interfaith calendar

Fowler suggests that employers consider incorporating an interfaith calendar into their traditional calendar to stay up-to-date on holidays that might be important to employees.

Christmas is the most commonly celebrated workplace holiday in the U.S., he explained, and Christian holiday practices tend to pervade the workplace. Few workplaces close for or otherwise accommodate Jewish, Muslim or other holidays, he said. This can cause some employees to “feel different, marginalized, less worthy or not part of the team,” he explained.

The Microsoft Outlook e-mail system allows users to add holidays celebrated by various countries to computer calendars. Fowler recommended the BBC’s interfaith calendar as well.

Fowler recommends that employers review interfaith calendars at least quarterly to identify holidays that could be relevant for employees in their organizations. He suggests employers avoid scheduling meetings or other events on religious holidays to minimize issues.

A quarterly review of upcoming holidays provides employers with a good opportunity to remind employees to submit any time-off requests or other accommodation needs as far in advance as possible, he added. However, managers should not assume that employees will require the same time off or accommodations each year, he noted, because there are many things that impact how an individual practices his or her religion from year to year.

Holiday policies and practices

HR professionals have a number of holiday-related issues to manage, such as appropriate year-end holiday party celebrations, office decorations and time-off requests, Fowler acknowledged. Nevertheless, he encouraged participants to consider adding other provisions to their holiday policy, such as holiday swapping (permitting employees to work on a holiday they do not celebrate in exchange for a holiday that is meaningful to them) or floating holidays (undesignated holiday time off that employees can schedule to meet their needs), to further demonstrate the organization’s support for employee religious needs.

After illustrating a number of religious holiday scenarios employers could encounter, such as an employee who decides for the first time to fast and cover her hair for the monthlong observance of the Muslim holiday Ramadan, Fowler provided a number of tips for participants such as:

• Institute quiet rooms so there is a designated place for those who need space for prayer or meditation during the workday.

• Acknowledge holidays in advance with a friendly and informational e-mail.

• Train employees how to ask respectful and genuinely curious questions. For example, “I noticed you’ve started covering your hair. Would you mind sharing a little bit more about your new practice with me?”

• Avoid treating an employee as a spokesperson for everyone in a religious group.

In addition, Fowler encouraged employers to re-evaluate company traditions such as “Secret Santa” programs, which could alienate those who don’t celebrate Christmas. And, companies that partner with a charitable organization should be sure the mission of the organization “aligns with the company’s diversity goals and standards,” he said.

Guidance on the legal obligations for U.S. employers to prevent religious harassment and discrimination and to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs can be found on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s website.

When issues arise, employers should “address behavior, not belief,” Fowler added. “As HR professionals, you do not have to manage what people believe; what you do have to manage is how people behave toward others in the workplace.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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