12 Days of HR: Oh Come All Ye Faithful—Maintaining an Inclusive Workplace Around the Holidays
There's so much to celebrate at the end of the year, and while it often feels like Christmas steals the spotlight, it's likely that some of your employees also observe Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and other celebrations throughout the season. In light of this diversity, employers should strive to foster an inclusive atmosphere in the workplace during the holidays. We recently discussed employees' requests for accommodations based on their religious beliefs, and today we are offering some advice on how to handle seasonal decorations in the workplace.
The EEOC provides extensive guidance on how to navigate religious beliefs in the workplace, and it offers the following example to illustrate potential issues regarding holiday decorations:
"Each December, the president of XYZ corporation directs that several wreaths be placed around the office building and a tree be displayed in the lobby. Several employees complain that to accommodate their non-Christian religious beliefs, the employer should take down the wreaths and tree, or alternatively should add holiday decorations associated with other religions."
In response, the EEOC explained that "Title VII does not require that XYZ corporation remove the wreaths and tree or add holiday decorations associated with other religions. The result under Title VII on these facts would be the same whether in a private or government workplace." The EEOC additionally notes that the United States Supreme Court has held that wreaths, Christmas trees, lights, Santa Claus, and reindeer are generally "secular" in nature and that restrictions of the establishment clause do not apply in private workplaces. Despite this apparent flexibility when it comes to holiday décor, the EEOC nonetheless suggests that "[a]s a best practice . . . all employers may find that sensitivity to the diversity of their workplace promotes positive employee relations."
We agree. Although permissible for private employers, it's probably best to avoid decorations involving religious symbols like a nativity scene or a menorah. But there's no need to ditch the decorations completely—instead, focus your efforts on more seasonal, secular décor (think garlands, snowflakes, ornaments, and lights) to celebrate the season and avoid causing any of your employees to feel excluded on the basis of religion. In the event that you do run into a complaint, initiate a conversation with the employee to understand his or her concerns—the employee might simply misunderstand what is and isn't allowed by law.
Finally, while it's on your mind, this may be a good time to review your policies and employee handbooks. Be sure that your anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies are relevant and up-to-date and encourage an atmosphere of inclusion and respect across your workforce throughout the year.
As always, please feel free to contact an attorney from Verrill Dana's Labor and Employment Practice Group with any questions.