Merry Christmas, happy holidays and happy Hanukkah

End of year brings requests for time off for religious observance, need for employers to embrace all religions and holidays relevant to employees

Stuart Rudner

By Stuart Rudner

In my last post, I discussed some of the potential issues that can arise relating to holiday parties. The other issue that often arises at this time of year is employee requests for time off for religious observance.

As we all know, statutory holidays in Canada include two Christian holidays: Christmas and Easter. As a result, a practice developed where organizations felt they had to give people of other religions two days off with pay as well.

However, the general policy is employees are not necessarily entitled to paid days off, but are entitled to reasonable accommodation in the form of being allowed to have time off for religious observance without loss of pay.

Effectively, what this means is that, if it is feasible, they should be allowed make up the time off when it is practical. This can involve banking overtime, or switching shifts or days off work or any other accommodation that would allow them to have the time off on the day that they need, but not end up being paid less at the end of the week or month. In other words, it is not necessarily required that an employer provide paid time off. Rather, what they should attempt to do is allow the employee to shift some of the time they work so they will be able to participate in their religious observance.

A similar issue is determining which holidays should be celebrated within the organization. I am not one of those people that recommends that all symbols of Christmas should be eliminated for the sake of political correctness. Rather, employers should make an effort to embrace all religions and holidays that are relevant to their workforce.

However, rather than watering down one holiday, it is equally “fair” to acknowledge several religions equally. As appropriate, you can enlist staff of various backgrounds to assist. This does not mean every single religion should be recognized — organizations should be aware of their workforce and acknowledge those that are represented.

It is also important that organizations consider substance and not just form. For example, some organizations have renamed their Christmas party as a holiday party, but the party itself is entirely focused on Christmas with Christmas songs, Christmas decorations and even a visit from Santa. No other religions or holidays are even mentioned. In such a case, it is clearly a Christmas party in all but name.

In many ways, this is less of a legal issue than a practical one, although it does have potential human rights implications. Just like the cashiers that wish customers a merry Christmas without considering whether they actually celebrate Christmas, I encourage employers to consider the community in determining how to approach their holiday celebrations.

While I am Jewish, I tend to take wishes of merry Christmas in the spirit which I assume they were intended. I am not offended by such comments, but it does occur to me that in a multicultural area, such as Toronto, it is not particularly wise for an individual to assume everyone celebrates Christmas.

I know many people complain about “not being allowed to say merry Christmas” or being forced to say “happy holidays.” Obviously, if you know the person that you are speaking with celebrates Christmas, you should wish them a merry Christmas. Similarly, if you know they are Jewish, you can wish them a happy Hanukkah. However, if you don’t know what they celebrate, then a generic wish such as happy holidays is the most prudent.

At the end of the day, human rights and political correctness should not result in the elimination of holiday celebrations. Employers, like everyone else, should be mindful of the population they are dealing with and respectful of all backgrounds and groups. This is true whether the issue is time off, holiday celebrations, or anything else.

Stuart Rudner is a leading HR Lawyer and a partner in the Labour & Employment Law Group of Miller Thomson LLP, a national law firm. He provides clients with strategic advice regarding all aspects of the employment relationship, and represents them before courts, mediators and tribunals. He is author of You’re Fired: Just Cause for Dismissal in Canada, published by Carswell. He can be reached at (416) 595-8672 or [email protected]. You can also follow him on Twitter @CanadianHRLaw and join his Canadian HR Law Group on LinkedIn.

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