Ho hos and no nos

December 11, 2006

Santa is in the malls, families are stringing lights across the fronts of their houses and placing menorahs in windows, and the music of various faiths can be heard on radio stations. The holidays — from Christmas to Hannukah to Kwanzaa and more — have arrived.

The holiday season brings a range of celebrations, but in the litigious and politically correct world we live in, the December holidays also bring some concerns for businesses — not enough to the kill the cheer but enough to invite some caution out of respect for others.

Should an agency or company put up a tree? Can a business permit signs that say “Merry Christmas?” Does anyone really believe the cards that read “Happy Holidays” mean anything different than a nod to one of Christianity’s most sacred of days? Is it safe to host a party? Must every employee be included?

What’s right? What’s fair? What’s legal?

According to Dr. Joel Rudin, a professor of management/MIS in the Rohrer College of Business at Rowan University, Glassboro, N.J., a boss or business owner doesn’t need to be a Scrooge. It is possible to allow employees to mark their holidays as they see fit while keeping the business or organization legally compliant and the non-observant employees comfortable.

Rudin, who co-authored “Keeping the Faith but Losing in Court: Legal Implications of Proselytizing in the Workplace” in the June 2004 issue of Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, has come up with some tips for businesses to consider during the holidays. They were in a press release distributed by Newswire on behalf of Rowan University.

Is attendance at the company’s holiday party mandatory? Are there any rewards for attending that employees would not receive if they skipped the event? If so, it’s a mistake to include overtly religious symbols or statements at the holiday party.

Your company needs a religious harassment policy. Religious harassment is more complex than sexual harassment, so you can’t just take your sexual harassment policy and substitute the word “religion” for the word “sex.” A religious harassment policy would provide a means for employees to complain if they were offended by the religious content of holiday parties.

There are some “ho, ho, ho no nos” businesses need to keep in mind at this time of year, but it is possible for employees to mark their holidays without infringing on the rights of others.

As with the rest of the year, Rudin says employers and employees should keep the following in mind:

  • Never say anything negative to employees/coworkers about their religion.
  • Never force an unwilling employee/coworker to listen to religious views.
  • Feel free to talk to employees/coworkers about religion as long as you don’t violate the first two rules, and as long as they don’t complain about it.

For those who observe and those who do not, may the spirit of the holiday season be with you all, all year. That goes for the lawyers, too.

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