By: Erica Rocush

Springtime Holidays

Although the Winter holidays usually garner the most attention, Springtime is also an important time for celebrations in many religious and cultural traditions which can create their own risks in the employment environment, especially as more employers are looking to celebrate in a more diverse and inclusive manner. The significant religious and cultural observances celebrated every Spring include not only Lent, Easter and Passover, but also Ramadan, celebrated by Muslims around the world; the Hindu holy festival of Holi; Nowruz, the Baha’i new year celebration; Vaisakhi celebrated by the Sikhs; Vesak Day celebrated by Buddhists, as well as other spiritual and cultural festivals honoring the coming of Spring. It is important that employers observe these celebrations in a respectful and inclusive manner to both bolster employee morale and avoid legal claims.

Although it is definitely a positive trend that many employers are looking to expand workplace celebrations beyond the traditional Christian-centric Easter celebrations, even the most well-meaning, inclusive and diverse employers can unintentionally do more harm than good if holidays are not recognized in a culturally sensitive manner. Therefore, it is important that companies ensure that all workplace celebrations are managed in a way that limits the potential for claims of discrimination or harassment. Here are a few helpful tips to ensure that your Spring celebrations remain sunny and don’t end up with showers of claims and lawsuits:

  1. Make it voluntary. Whatever the nature of the celebration, make sure that it is clear that participation is completely voluntary and either participation, or lack of participation, will not impact any terms and conditions of employment. And then make sure that you walk the talk, and that there is no peer pressure to participate or negative repercussions for not participating. Plan events in such a manner that employees feel free to come and go, or not, so attendance fits into work schedules and employees feel free to attend for as short or long as they personally prefer.
  2. Make it inclusive. If you are going to celebrate any holidays at the workplace, make sure that you honor an inclusive range of religious and cultural traditions. Although there are certain holidays that may be observed by a larger segment of the employee population, if you choose to celebrate any holidays in the workplace, you should acknowledge and celebrate all of the holidays of the season, and do so in a way that each celebration is treated equally. For example, if you are going to permit offices or cubicles to be decorated for any holiday, welcome employees to decorate for their own celebration of choice. And of course be sure that all decorations and activities are respectful and do not in any way demean any other group or tradition. Invite employees of different religious faiths and cultural backgrounds to help plan the festivities so you have diverse perspectives.
  3. Make it respectful. Make sure that your recognition and celebration of the holidays honors the holiday and tradition in an accurate and respectful manner. Asking employees to dress in a certain tradition or perform a reenactment may seem like harmless fun, but it could easily cross the line into parody, cultural appropriation, or something else that could offend a segment of the employee population. If you do engage in activities specific to the religion or ethnic tradition, have someone who practices the religion or is of the cultural tradition be involved in all aspects of the planning and execution process to ensure that it is respectful. Also, ensure that all celebrations remain celebratory, and do not become vehicles for the harassment or discrimination of another religion or cultural tradition.
  4. Make it professional. Remember that although these are celebrations, they are still work-related. Keep all activities professional – no hula contests in the conference room! And if alcohol is served, remind everyone to keep drinking to a moderate level and make sure to offer food to go with the drink. Consider planning events for an afternoon so there is a distinct end time and employees know that they have to return to work after the celebration.
  5.  Make it fun. Remember that these are supposed to be celebrations, so the most important rule of all is to have fun!
  6. And finally, but most importantly, remember your reasonable accommodation obligations. Most importantly, when determining if and how to honor the various Spring celebrations, remember that employers have an obligation to reasonably accommodate their employees’ varying religious beliefs. Therefore, even if you choose not to have any celebrations at work, you have to work with your employees who wish to take time off or wear certain clothing to celebrate their religious beliefs and honor those requests unless they create an undue hardship for the company. This includes permitting employees to take a day off for their own chosen religious celebration, even if it does not coincide with a holiday that the company may choose to observe. If you are going to give employees a day off for a company-recognized holiday, consider offering the day as a floating holiday so each employee can choose which holiday to take off in celebration. And respect your employees’ choice of observance, which includes not requiring employees to work on their selected day off through attendance at meetings or responding to work-related emails or calls.