Religious belief has been a protected characteristic in the workplace for a very long time. Yet many businesses are still struggling to fully understand how to recognise this when it comes to observing religious festivals.

As Christmas is fast approaching, I felt it an opportune moment to explore how you can accommodate this, and other festivals within your business.

Time off for religious festivals

The Equality Act is the relevant legislation protecting individuals from direct, and indirect discrimination. However, it doesn’t stipulate what employers must or must not do when it comes to things like agreeing time off for religious festivals.

As such, you need to ensure that you consider all leave requests fairly across all staff and that you take a sympathetic approach to requests which are reasonable and practical to accommodate.

If you were to apply a blanket ban approach to leave requests, you could leave yourself vulnerable to claims of indirect discrimination. This would mean that you would be required to provide justification for your decision. Justification would take the form of being able to prove that allowing leave over a certain religious event, would render the business unable to operate properly because you would not have sufficient staff available to allow the business to function.

If you operate a shut-down at certain times of the year, Christmas for example, then employees who do not celebrate Christmas, would have more of an argument for taking leave for one of their own religious festivals. This is on the basis that the business already observes certain events in the workforce majority’s religious calendar.

Celebrating key festivals

Sticking with Christmas as the topical example, you should apply the same principles when considering how to celebrate any religious festival within your own business.

One of the biggest barriers to achieving a harmonious balance of respect and understanding in culturally diverse workforces is the ability to consider and accommodate all. There can be no argument that this might be tricky to achieve, however, don’t underestimate the willingness to try.

Choosing when to celebrate

In just the same way you would probably think twice about booking a staff party on a Sunday as it is the Christian day of rest, so too should you consider the implications for your workforce who observe a different day of rest.

Let’s be clear though, nobody will tell you that you CAN’T hold a staff party or team celebration on any day you wish. I am simply recommending that you give due consideration to the implications for ALL of your staff when you set the date.

A celebratory feast

Whilst talking about ‘traditional’ office celebrations, it’s a good time to mention refreshments. Be sure to ask those who will be attending about restrictions like vegetarianism, the requirement for halal products, no pork, alternatives to alcohol and so on.

In reality, when you look at those questions, they are probably things that any good host would want to understand about their guests. So it shouldn’t be too onerous for you to understand these needs about your workforce.

Once you know these restrictions, be sensitive – and sensible – about how you meet them. Ensure foods are clearly labelled, don’t mix different foods together and don’t assume that seemingly innocuous foods like cheese, crisps and cakes will automatically be vegetarian.

Key Point:

If you don’t already understand the cultural mix of your employees, take the time to do so before you cause bad feeling by making assumptions! You will usually find most people are happy to help others understand more about their religion. Especially when that desire it clearly comes from the wish to meet different needs.

Alternative ways to celebrate

If you have a diverse workforce, why not use that as a reason to branch out and do something different. There are ever-increasing reasons why a ‘traditional’ staff booze-up is becoming less popular than it once was. All of which are of equal value and importance.

By taking a different approach, you may find that staff engagement increases and, in turn, the ongoing positive impact on staff morale pays dividends you would never achieve when bonding over warm wine at an office shindig at the local pub.

Options for teambuilding days grow year on year.

What about taking the team outdoors to try a new activity – abseiling, white water rafting, paintballing or similar?

Or maybe your team would prefer something a little less gung-ho, a cookery course or visiting one of the growing numbers of ‘escape room’ activities?

Of course, you may find that people aren’t overly keen to give up time of their own to spend with colleagues. And not too many businesses can afford the luxury of giving their staff a whole or half day off.

If this is the case, then you might find yourself sticking with the traditional Christmas party options. However, providing you revisit the earlier suggestions about food and drink, give consideration to the day and location of the party and ASK your staff for their input, chances are everyone will have a great time and will come together in the intended spirit of the season.

Deck the halls

Before I sign off for this post, it occurred to me that you might also find one last tip about decorations useful. An important message to send to your staff is that, whilst there may be one or two festivals that are observed by the majority, you are mindful of the minority too. So, if you are happy to put up Christmas decorations, you would be well advised to consider how to accommodate similar traditions for other festivals.

Final point to note

Consulting with your team and avoiding assumptions is key. Not just in how you handle religious festivals but also in how you ensure diversity and equality across all business activities. However, religious festivals often carry significant personal importance to people. By upping the ante you will learn more about your people and help them learn more about each other. That’s what some might call a win:win scenario.

For more information about this, and the full range of HR Support available, please contact Kate Underwood HR on 02382 025160 or email [email protected]


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