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.

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.

Be prepared to accommodate -- or explain why you can't. Employers are required to accommodate employees' faith-based requests for special treatment unless the employer can demonstrate that doing so would impose an "undue hardship" like added expense, safety concerns, or a burden on other workers.

Employees who request accommodations such as being permitted to wear religious symbols, taking leave for religious holidays or refraining from certain work activities on religious grounds need to be fairly specific in requesting accommodation, and employers have to make a good faith effort to either accommodate (though not necessarily as the employee originally requested) or explain credibly why an accommodation would impose an undue burden on the business. Working with the employee to develop a mutually agreed accommodation can go a long way toward avoiding legal trouble.

Handle offended employees and customers with care. Employees sometimes express strong religious opinions or try to convert others. When they become too enthusiastic, co-workers and customers may complain, requiring management to intervene. While religious beliefs must be accommodated within reason, employers aren't required to allow employees to impose their religious views on others.

Train your managers. Employers generally aren't liable if their workers offend each other on religious grounds but they can be held responsible if managers discriminate on the basis of religion or fail to intervene when their subordinates do. Make sure your managers know that religious discrimination in the workplace is illegal and train them to effectively address any faith-based abuse or harassment of which they become aware.

Prevent retaliation. Employees who believe they've been discriminated against for their religious beliefs have the right to complain about it. They also have the legal right to be protected from reprisals when they do, even if their initial complaints turn out to lack merit. Make sure your employees know where and how to complain if they feel they've been discriminated against on religious grounds, and don't let their colleagues or bosses retaliate against them for using the complaint process.

Set an inclusive tone. Religion is a deeply personal matter and employees deserve to have their religious convictions treated with the utmost respect. In any company, tone is set from the top so it's imperative for top executives to be respectful of employees' beliefs and traditions. It can also be a good idea to remind employees that their time at work is intended for just that -- work -- and that everyone is expected to exercise tolerance, good taste and discretion when religion comes up in the workplace.

Despite its potential legal pitfalls, this season offers many lovely ways to celebrate. Whatever your personal beliefs might be, may your holidays be merry and bright!

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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