Tis the Season – To Avoid Religious Discrimination and Harassment in the Office

During this time of year, it is difficult to avoid catching the holiday spirit (or is that a cold?). At the very least, the Holiday Season does a remarkable job of reminding us of its presence with decorations springing up and talking heads debating the political significance of “Happy Holidays” and the color of your Starbucks cup.  Yet for employers, this time of year also presents certain unforeseen or unintended challenges.  For instance, employees may wish to decorate their workspace with holiday themed or religious decorations.  Some employers may encourage participation in toy drives or other charitable services.  Unfortunately, these well-meaning activities may create potential issues. 

Pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee because of the employee’s religion.  It is important to recognize that, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), this encompasses religions other than those considered traditional, organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.  Additionally, this may also include employees’ sincerely held ethical or moral beliefs.

Religious discrimination and harassment can take many forms.  For example, offensive remarks about an individual’s religion can amount to harassment whether made by a supervisor, co-worker, or client.  Although “teasing” and isolated incidents may not amount to discrimination or harassment based on the severity of the conduct, an employer should still address such incidents or conduct regardless of the employer’s opinion as to the severity or pervasiveness of it.  If the employer fails to address such conduct and it continues, the employer risks an employee asserting a claim for religious discrimination or harassment.    

During the Holiday Season, with decorations, events, and parties being omnipresent, it is easy to see how employers may be faced with a situation where an employee may feel discriminated against or harassed based on their religion or where there are issues with an employee’s religious expression or desire to opt out of holiday festivities.  To that end, employers can protect themselves by following a few general guidelines.

First, employers should have an anti-harassment policy in place that covers religious harassment.  This policy should clearly explain prohibited conduct and delineate clear procedures for bringing religious harassment to the employer’s attention.  Second, employers should allow employees to express their religion to the extent they allow other types of personal expression that are not harassing or otherwise disruptive.  For example, employers should allow their employees to decorate their workspace as long as said decorations are not harassing, disruptive, or infringing on the established anti-harassment policy.  This should not be isolated to the December Holiday Season to accommodate those employees whose religious holidays may not fall within the “Holiday Season.”  In short, all employees should be permitted the same opportunities for religious and personal expression.  Third, employers and supervisors should be wary about mandating or encouraging employee attendance or participation in Holiday events related to the employer’s religious expression. 

By following these simple guidelines this time of year, an employer can reduce the risk of potential conflicts regarding religious discrimination and harassment.  However, in the event of such a conflict, and employer should be proactive in intervening and resolving such conduct even if a formal complaint has not been filed. 

Hoagland Longo Moran Dunst & Doukas has experience in employment matters involving claims of religious harassment and discrimination and has represented employers and individuals in matters before state and federal courts and administrative agencies.  For more information about anti-harassment and discrimination policies or for any other labor and employment questions, please contact us at 732-545-4717.