Tuesday December 10, 2013
I read yet another article by HR professionals advising business owners about how to be sensitive to people of various religious beliefs – or no religious beliefs - during the holiday season. Apparently, some would argue that everything should be kept so generic and non-potentially offensive that traditional symbols of Christmas should be taboo in the workplace.
Honestly sometimes I think we try to be so open-minded that we risk having our brains leak out. We have become so sensitized to offending anyone that we have gone far beyond not only the law, but also common sense. When we tailor everything to not offending anyone we risk making the workplace so sterile that it isn’t alive.
There are several problems with this line of thinking and advice. Courts have deemed items such as Christmas Trees and Santa Clause as secular items that do not require religious accommodation. There is really no legal reason to curtail the use of these secular items, and no real accommodation required.
Even if Christmas Trees or Santa Clause were considered religious expression the legal obligation for private employers who display religious items is to reasonably accommodate any objections of employees. That typically means excusing offended employees from participating. That’s the standard for displays that are tied to a religion, such as a Manager Scene, a Star of David, a Menorah, or a Cross.
Employees actually have the right to some degree of religious expression in the private workplace. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires that employers accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious belief in engaging in religious expression in the workplace to the extent that they can do so without undue hardship on the operation of the business.
Private employers also have the right to display and express their own religious views. Government employers cannot do that because of the part of the First Amendment referring to the “establishment of religion.” But the same amendment also says that the government cannot prohibit the free expression of religion. That applies to business owners!
As a private employer, you can express yourself, and you should, to a degree. Your employees can express themselves, and should, to a degree. Keep in mind though, that allowing one employee to post a Christmas Card of a Manger Scene in her cubicle, means you also have to allow another employee to post a card that depicts his religion.
Discrimination based on religion is illegal, just as is racial, gender, and age discrimination and a bunch of other protected class categories. Savvy employers won’t operate that way anyway. Some of your best employees will not be just like you, will not look just like you, and will not share all of your beliefs. Instead they will compliment your strengths and weaknesses, appeal to a clientele you might not have reached, and understand your market in a way that’s invaluable to the long-term viability of your company. Celebrate them. But also celebrate you. Wish your employees a Happy Hanukkah, a Merry Christmas, a Happy Kwanza, a Blessed Ramadan, or whatever is true to you.