By Mark F. Kluger and William H. Healey
After reading last week’s article, Ms. Piggy and Ernie seem to have worked out their sexual tensions. But now she refuses to attend the holiday party because of the menu, claiming that serving ham violates her sincerely held religious beliefs, to which we say, oy vey.
Tensions regarding employer sponsored holiday events and religion are not new. The semantic transition from Christmas to holiday party has been a struggle and a source of resentment in the workplace. At the same time, in the last decade, the number of self-identified Christians in the U.S. has declined by close to 8%, while those in non-Christian faiths has increased by 1.2% and the “nones”, brought to you by the Millennials (Atheists, Agnostics or those who don’t identify with any religion), has grown by 6.7% according to 2 Pew Research Center studies. While Christians still remain a substantial majority, roughly 70% of the U.S. population, the racial and ethnic diversity within the different sects continues to grow significantly. And although the Jewish population has remained mostly static in the last decade, other religious groups that do not celebrate Christmas, such as Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Jehovah Witnesses, have increased significantly.
There is no doubt that federal and state anti-discrimination laws prohibit religious discrimination in the workplace, including at holiday parties. That does not mean, however, that an employer’s recognition of Christmas or any other religious holiday is discrimination. In fact, most of the traditional signs of Christmas are non-religious. Even the 9 Wise Men and Women on the Supreme Court and the EEOC Elves have declared that Christmas trees and wreaths are not religious symbols. While Nativity scenes are; Santa and his Reindeer are not (please, no real Reindeer though, PETA may be offended). Decorating the office or adorning the party with those themes is not discriminatory. But because doing so exclusively may alienate those employees who do not celebrate Christmas, making holiday events inclusive of other religions is a good idea for many reasons.
Some employers have paid the price for not getting it. A Chicago hospital paid $40,000 to settle an EEOC case for disciplining a Muslim Nurse-Midwife for not attending the Christmas party. Another employer was sued because it sent a poinsettia and a note wishing everyone a happy holiday whether they “celebrate the birth of Christ or the Hanukkah Candles” to a department with one Jewish employee, placed crosses on the invitations to the mandatory holiday party, hired carolers to sing religious songs at the party, and disciplined the Jewish employee for sending an email to co-workers after the Christmas party explaining the meaning of Hanukah. Again, oy vey.
Mandatory holiday parties…really? Just make attendance voluntary and mean it. No good can come from requiring employees to be there or rewarding those who attend to the detriment of those who don’t; not to mention, that if it is a mandatory, non-exempt employees can insist on being paid. How about that for a buzz killer?
Even if nothing will make Ms. Piggy happy, it is important to be sensitive to religious issues in planning the holiday party menu. If there are no employees with potential religious restrictions, then the pig roast is on. But if an employer knows that some employees may have religious dietary restrictions, having food that does not conflict with their sincerely held religious beliefs may be a required reasonable accommodation just as would having non-alcoholic beverages.
Given how much fun we have made planning a holiday party, you may want to know that a November 2017 Randstad N.A. survey found that 90% of employees would rather have a bonus or more vacation time than a company holiday party. It’s just so shocking to us that employees would rather have more assets than fight off the boss to keep him from grabbing theirs. Ho, ho ho! Merry holidays!