Holidays can heighten tensions in interfaith offices

MIAMI -- Most years, Karen Ross doesn't mind the Christmas tree at her office or the carols playing in the background while she clacks on her keyboard. But this year, the Miami administrative assistant is spending much more than 40 hours at work.

MIAMI -- Most years, Karen Ross doesn't mind the Christmas tree at her office or the carols playing in the background while she clacks on her keyboard. But this year, the Miami administrative assistant is spending much more than 40 hours at work.

While Ross is thankful to have a job, she finds herself agitated by spending her early evening listening to Santa songs at the office when she should be home lighting Hanukkah candles with her family. "It's a little uncomfortable."

In workplaces around the country, December typically brings religion to the forefront. Anything from office decorations to holiday parties to arranging time off can open the door to debates on spirituality and religious observances. Holiday cheer, if not managed properly, can drive away valued workers and worse, lead to lawsuits.

The Belk department store chain learned the hard way that even secular celebration can be offensive. Earlier this year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Office sued Belk on behalf of a Jehovah's Witness who was fired for violating her employer's "festivities policy."

The woman, Myra Jones-Abid, refused to wear a Santa hat during the holiday season at a store in Raleigh, N.C. The EEOC says Belk discriminated against Jones-Abid, an employee in the gift wrap department, by failing to accommodate her religious beliefs, which prohibit her from celebrating any secular or religious holidays.


"An employee should not be forced to choose between her faith and her job," said Lynette A. Barnes, regional attorney for the EEOC's Charlotte District, where the charge was filed.

The Belk lawsuit is the latest in an uptick of religious discrimination cases pursued by the EEOC. Religious discrimination charges filed with the EEOC more than doubled from 1992 to 2007 and continue to show annual increases.

Jeanne Goldberg, a senior attorney advisor with the EEOC, says two factors are involved: that the country is more of a multi-faith society and that more employers operate 24/7, leading to greater potential conflicts with workers' religious observance.

In their struggle to balance employment and faith, workers have sued for such things as being discharged when they refused to work on their Sabbath, or being fired because their religion requires them to wear garb that conflicts with a company's dress code. Like most litigation, these suits are costly for employers. In 2008, settlements resulted in payment of $7.5 million in damages, according to the EEOC.

Truth Fisher, senior counsel at Gordon & Rees in Miami, says she expects even more of these discrimination cases as employees increasingly get aggressive about their religious rights at work. Fisher suggests employers may want to consider religious sensitivity as part of their standard training programs. "Managers need to know how to temper situations before they get out of hand."

The message for employers is to proceed cautiously when considering whether to avoid or embrace religion at work. Most businesses do their best to keep religious conversations and practices out of the office. They have turned Christmas parties into holiday events and included menorahs in their decorations. Some employers have turned to time-off banks, which give workers the option to take a day off for religious observance without the need for explanation.

Eric Stillman, CEO of The Jewish Federation of Broward County, Fla., said employers often ask him for help in planning company-related holiday celebrations. "I think employers are trying to find ways to not offend or alienate people and still observe the holidays."

But there are workplace experts who feel employers should encourage workers to be open about their faith on the job. Healthy discussion of religion with co-workers could be beneficial, Stillman believes. Some folks aren't familiar with or aware of other religions that are different from their own, he said. "Any conversation handled appropriately and respectfully among adults on religion which educates and shows the differences could be a positive experience and wind up broadening perspectives of other people."


David W. Miller, director of the Princeton Faith & Work Initiative, says employers should strive to be faith-friendly. "You need to gauge the religious diversity of the workforce," he said, suggesting that sometimes, prayer at a company holiday party is acceptable. "It's a nice way of showing a focus on something bigger than profits."

Miller feels some companies have gone too far with political correctness, as opposed to allowing some religious expressions. "A healthy dose of common sense goes a long way."

Eric Peterson, manager of diversity and inclusion initiatives for the Society for Human Resource Management, says most businesses realize they can't have a worker proselytizing and creating a hostile work environment. But at the same time, he says, no worker should be forced to hide a religious identity for fear that it's a career-limiting move. The best practice is to create an office culture where workers feel comfortable speaking up if they are unable to do something that is against their religion, such as attending a company holiday party.

During December, religious diversity is on employers' radar, although most tiptoe around the right way to handle it. Peterson said, "They see it as a nuisance rather than an opportunity to become more inclusive. That takes more work, but it's the best way to go."

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