As workplaces become more diverse, many companies are concerned with potential liability during the holiday season. Everyone is familiar with the annual list of “dos and don’ts” for corporate holiday parties designed to help employers avoid potential liability for inappropriate conduct at these events (click here for a refresher course), but there are other potential employment law issues that may arise during this season. For example, what guidelines should an employer use to address holiday decorations put up by employees, or by the employer itself? What are an employer’s obligations to grant time off to employees to observe religious holidays? Holiday decorations are an area where common sense and even-handed application of the rules make all the difference. The EEOC has made it clear that holiday decorations, including items with a religious theme, are permissible for private employers. An employer also may allow its employees to decorate their own workspaces with holiday-themed items, including religious items. If employees are allowed to put up their own holiday displays, the employer must be certain to enforce the rules fairly for all employees. For example, allowing one employee to display religious symbols but forbidding another from displaying religious symbols of a different faith could give rise to a complaint for religious discrimination. If all employees are treated equally, problems regarding holiday displays can be largely eliminated. If an employee complains about any displays, it is important that his or her concerns be treated fairly and not ridiculed or downplayed. An employee complaint does not require an employer to remove a holiday decoration, but the employer should be sure to treat the complaining employee appropriately and in accordance with its policies. Of course, each employer should consider the diversity of its own workforce when deciding what sort of holiday displays, if any, should be permitted.
Another issue that may arise during this season is requests for time off for holiday observances. As with other employee requests for religious accommodations, an employer is only required to grant such requests to the extent they do not impose an undue hardship on the business. It is still important for employers to be even-handed when determining which requests they will grant. For example, if a business is closed for Christmas, the employer should try to provide time off to employees who observe other holidays to the extent it does not impose an undue hardship. This is another area where fair application of the company’s policies will eliminate many potential discrimination claims. Employers also can take other steps to assist employees with respect to holiday scheduling. For example, an employer can encourage voluntary shift-swapping or other employee-driven schedule changes by providing support and an infrastructure for such exchanges. The use of floating holidays or personal days which are not pre-assigned also can be helpful to ensure that requests for time off can be accommodated with minimal disruption to the business.