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Religious Celebrations in the Workplace

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The winter holiday season is in full swing, bringing tidings of great joy and, with them, a host of legal pitfalls for employers.

As if it weren't enough that too much bourbon in the eggnog can generate lawsuits when workers drive home drunk home from the annual office party, this is also the season when many of the world's great religions celebrate important holidays. Workers who are eager to commemorate their faith traditions on the job can create massive legal headaches for their employers.

Government agencies and contractors can face special challenges this time of year due to constitutional limits on interactions between church and state, and usually find it easiest to ban all religious elements from their seasonal festivities. For private companies, however, it may not be necessary to keep all holiday events strictly secular.

Companies including Chick-fil-A, Hobby Lobby, Forever 21, Tyson Foods (TSN), Herman Miller (MLHR), Interstate Batteries and Tom's of Maine (a unit of Colgate-Palmolive (CL)are all overtly faith-based, and all manage (mostly) to stay out of court. So, if you're a corporate executive who can't bear to hear Elvis sing Blue Christmas one more time, here are 10 tips for accommodating your employees' religious beliefs at this especially sensitive time of year:

Never make religion mandatory. Employers can have their own religious beliefs but are not allowed to discriminate against employees for theirs or, for that matter, for their lack of religion. Thus, it's permissible to allow employees to pray together at a holiday lunch and even for the boss to pray with them, but not okay to force employees to participate if they'd rather opt out. Avoid social pressure and don't ever deny a raise, bonus, promotion or other benefit to an employee for failing to participate in religious activities.

Don't reward religiosity. Employers who wouldn't dream of openly discriminating against their employees for belonging to a particular denomination are sometimes less careful about rewarding those who share their own religious leanings. However, if employees of a particular religious background are awarded disproportionately large raises, bonuses, promotions, access to the boss or other plum benefits, it amounts to punishing those who don't share in that faith. Distribute the perks of employment on merit, and put religious affiliations aside when deciding who gets them.

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When in doubt, include. The oldest interfaith seminary in the world, The New Seminary for Interfaith Studies in New York, has as its motto "Never instead of, always in addition to." For employers, that's often an excellent approach. If you want to have a Christmas tree in your company lobby, for example, consider adding a menorah, a Kwanzaa kinara, a Bodhi Day tree and secular ornaments such as wrapped gifts and snowmen to broaden the scope of your celebrations.

Plan by committee. If everyone who works on the office holiday party attends the same house of worship, the chances of offending someone who belongs to a different faith or doesn't believe at all substantially increase. Invite anyone with an interest to participate on the party committee, and make sure that all of your employees know that they're welcome to contribute ideas to make the festivities as inclusive as possible.

Edit as appropriate. Some aspects of holiday traditions may be too religious for your employees, while others may be more universally acceptable. For example, traditional Christmas carols often have deeply religious lyrics. If you want to play them at a holiday event, consider playing instrumental versions and don't hesitate to mix in traditional music from other denominations as well as more secular tunes.

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