November 21, 2013

On the popular sitcom Seinfeld, the character Frank Costanza created an alternative holiday called “Festivus” in response to the commercialism and pressure that has come to dominate Christmas. In Canada’s diverse workplaces, Christmas and other holidays can cause stress for reasons that Frank may not have had in mind. Thus, workplace parties may struggle to create an appropriate balance that allows employees to express their holiday traditions without making others feel uncomfortable. Employees may take offence at being asked to decorate the employer’s establishment for a holiday important to the employer’s business. Everyone may wonder, if Frank Costanza worked in this workplace, would we have to accommodate his Festivus celebrations by giving him the day off? Join a panel of experienced legal counsel in this special holiday session as they explain the duty to accommodate employees’ holidays and discuss the appropriate limits of holiday-related religious concerns in the workplace.

    • Deck the halls? Should office Christmas decorations be prohibited or discouraged? What about decorations associated with holidays of other faiths? Would prohibiting or discouraging decorations be religious discrimination? Should certain types of employers, for example, employers in the broader public sector, be more or less restrictive of holiday decorations? Is it discriminatory to require employees to decorate the workplace for holidays important to the employer’s business (as is done in many retail establishments)?
    • Greetings and gifts: Should employers prohibit employees from exchanging greetings that may seem to privilege one religion over others, such as “Merry Christmas?” Can they require employees to extend such greetings to customers/clients? Should employers prohibit employees from exchanging Christmas gifts at the workplace? Can they prohibit employees from exchanging holiday greeting cards with religious themes or quotations? Would such prohibitive rules constitute discrimination on the basis of religion under human rights legislation? Could failing to implement such rules constitute discrimination on the basis of religion? When will an employee’s expression of his or her religious convictions in the workplace cross the line from legitimate friendly greetings and conversations into harassment?
    • You’ll want the whole day I suppose: Must employers provide employees with paid time off for religious observances? If the employer closes on statutory religious holidays, i.e. Christmas and Good Friday, must the employer provide employees of other faiths an equal number of paid days off? Are offers of scheduling changes sufficient accommodation if the changes allow employees to take time off for their religious holidays? What if the scheduling changes still result in some loss of pay? Can an employer require employees to use other earned entitlements, such as vacation time or lieu time for religious holidays? Are employees allowed to use sick days to take time off for a religious holiday? How should employers assess the legitimacy of requests for leave/accommodation to celebrate a religious holiday? Should they require evidence from a religious official? Can employers make distinctions between religious holidays, such as Rosh Hashanah, and cultural holidays, such as Chinese New Year (lunar new year) without violating human rights legislation? What collective agreement language have unions and employers used to address time off for religious holidays? Have collective agreements also addressed “cultural” holidays?