Oh, Christmas: the time of year when you drink hot apple cider, schedule sleigh rides, and worry about holiday-spawned lawsuits. If you’re like most managers, you don’t know how to tackle the season without increasing your company’s liability. You might have read that it’s illegal to put up Christmas decorations, or that you should instruct your employees to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” but is that true? How can you keep your company protected without having to say “Bah, Humbug?” Here’s what you need to know about religious discrimination during the holiday season.
Christmas Trees Aren’t Illegal
Christmas trees are not a crime, nor are menorahs, Christmas songs, Kwanzaa decorations, snowflakes, or any other holiday-themed baubles — even if they’re religious. You and your employees are still allowed to celebrate, whether that’s baking sugar cookies or putting up a mini-Nativity scene on your desk. However, you need to understand the specifics of employment law and religion to make sure you don’t end up on Santa’s naughty list.
You can’t discriminate against your employees based on their religious beliefs and practices. You also can’t allow your employees to harass or discriminate against their coworkers. The law recognizes several types of discrimination: disparate treatment, disparate impact, and hostile work environments. All three have been illegal since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It’s illegal to treat people of one religion differently from people of another faith. For example, you can’t give Christian employees Christmas Day off of work and tell all of your Jewish employees they’re required to cover those shifts. You are allowed to let people take off for the holidays, but you can’t set the schedule based on religion.
As a manager, you have to be careful about your decisions in the workplace. If you set policy that impacts one religious group more than others, you’re still breaking the law. For example, if your company gave everyone free hams for Christmas, this would impact Muslim and Jewish employees, who traditionally don’t eat pork products. Likewise, you can’t permit holiday decorations except for unlit candles, because some religious groups celebrate winter holidays by displaying candles. It’s reasonable to tell staff the fire code won’t allow lit candles in the building — but not to ban unlit candles entirely. It can be tricky to avoid this type of discrimination because you can accidentally impact your employees even with the best of intentions. It’s best to use a committee or outside resource to make sure you’re staying inclusive.
The most apparent form of religious discrimination is harassment, and it’s easy to run into trouble here. An employee might feel harassed by excessive holiday celebrations, especially if they’re pervasive or evangelical. A Nativity can be a lovely Christmas decoration for the office. A banner proclaiming that “Christ died for our sins” would be inappropriate. Likewise, an employee inviting the office to celebrate Christmas mass is appropriate; allowing that employee to send repeated invitations could turn into harassment. Make sure everyone is celebrating the holidays in a spirit of good cheer.
Do your workplace holiday blow-outs include alcohol? You might want to rethink that policy. Many religions discourage or forbid their members to imbibe. Employees from those religious backgrounds won’t feel like attending a drunken end-of-the-year holiday party. Plus, you’re setting your company up for a slew of sexual harassment complaints or even legal liability for accidents caused by post-party driving under the influence. Redirect the alcohol budget towards better food — or bigger bonuses.
The Grinch hasn’t stolen holiday spirit from the office. Instead, today’s employment laws make sure everyone feels included in winter celebrations. As long as you’re willing to put in some effort, you can host a rocking holiday party that raises morale without leaving anyone out in the cold. Creating a safe environment for all of your staff is indeed the best present you can get them.