Are Non-Christian Employees Represented in Your Holiday Policies?

Religious diversity in corporate America is a fact. Photo: wavebreakmedia/Unsplash

(This article first appeared in Harvard Business Review on Oct. 20, 2021.)

Accommodating a religiously diverse workplace is not just a nice to have practice; it’s increasingly becoming a must have for business and company leaders. For 15 years, I’ve worked for Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a nonprofit in Chicago that is dedicated to advancing interfaith cooperation in the United States. The number one question I get from peers in business and nonprofit spaces is not about the latest hot topic related to religious identity — it’s usually some version of this: “As an interfaith organization, how do you handle religious holidays for your employees?”

It’s not surprising that this question is coming up more and more. Religious diversity in corporate America is a fact. Although nearly two-thirds of Americans identify themselves as Christian, that number is down 12% over the last decade, according to Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life, and the number of people in America who identify as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu is increasing, as is the number of people who identify as having no religious affiliation. For decades, many companies’ holiday calendars have been oriented around the major Christian holidays. As people who practice other religions become a large portion of the talent base, these shifts require that HR and internal DEI efforts update the way they handle policies for religious holidays — so that people can have time off to celebrate whichever religious holidays are meaningful to them, their families, and their communities.

Welcoming employees’ religious diversity can even be a competitive advantage. The Society of Human Resources points to studies that show that when employers are attentive to recognizing and accommodating their employees’ religious traditions, levels of employee engagement and retention increase. More and more companies and corporations are reaching out to IFYC, asking us to advise on religious accommodation issues and interfaith engagement for their employee and client base.

What can companies do to accommodate employees who need time off for religious observance? 

One possible instinct is to close for all religious holidays, but that would quickly become untenable. By some estimates, in 2021 there are approximately 176 religious holidays. Closing the office for even a third of those holidays would be a nonstarter for most organizations. Another potential strategy is picking and choosing specific religious holidays to observe as a company, but this strategy quickly becomes complicated at best, and problematic at worst. This would, by default, leave certain community members and traditions out, and therefore would not meet the ultimate goal of showing respect for worldview diversity. (At IFYC, we intentionally use the term “worldview” to describe a guiding philosophy or outlook on life, which may be based on a particular religious tradition, spiritual orientation, non-religious perspective, or some combination of these). The ideal is a step beyond just “accommodation” — it’s to show employees that company leaders value them and respect and welcome this aspect of their identity.

Below are some practical and meaningful ways that your organization can support its religiously diverse employees:

Consider offering your employees floating holidays: Our organization’s holiday policy is simple. We offer 5 floating holidays, to be used however the employee chooses to use them. Companies can offer floating holidays alongside other paid time off. Our organization provides employees paid federal holidays, with the exception of Christmas Day (since Christmas Day is also a religious holiday). As a committed Christian, at first I found it strange to have to put in a time-off request for Christmas, but this experience helped me gain a deeper appreciation for my non-Christian colleagues who are used to such procedures to observe their holiest days.

Pair any floating holiday policies with generous PTO: Pairing our floating holidays with a generous PTO policy is important, especially because some religious traditions have more than five holidays. For example, there are up to 13 Jewish holidays per year that can require missing work. One of my colleagues observes all 13 each year, so she uses up all of her 5 floating holidays and supplements the additional time needed with PTO. Offering generous PTO and floating holidays gives employees enough time off to observe the religious, secular, or spiritual holidays or traditions that are important to them while still having enough time off for other purposes.

Be mindful of language: Language matters, and that’s why we use the term “floating holidays” instead of “religious holidays.” At IFYC, over a third of our team members identify as Secular, Humanist, Agnostic, Atheist, or non-religious. This policy allows them to take time off for any holiday or practice that is particularly meaningful for them, which may not be tied to religious observance.

For more on this topic, read IFYC founder Eboo Patel's Time for Business to Get Religion.

Have other flexible policies in place to support your employees: In addition to having time off policies that support religious accommodation for holiday observance, it’s also strategic to have other flexible policies in place. If you don’t already have a Flex Time policy, consider offering options for your employees to flex their hours, so your team members have the option to work a flexible schedule during special periods of religious observance. For example, during Ramadan, a holy month where many Muslims fast during daylight hours, many of my Muslim colleagues will start the workday early and then end early to adjust for energy levels while fasting.

Beef up your religious literacy: As a manager, you can’t be expected to know everything there is to know about all the different religious traditions out there, but having a basic religious literacy to help you navigate one of the most complex aspects of American life is a sound investment in your leadership. It only takes a few minutes to get started. Take IFYC’s 10 question interfaith literacy quiz to test your knowledge, and check out IFYC’s knowledge toolkit for religious literacy to learn more about less appreciated or misunderstood traditions.

Ask questions: Open up space to encourage your team members to share key tenets of their beliefs or traditions that may result in requests for accommodation, particularly as they apply to dietary needs, holidays, clothing, and prayer requirements.

Don’t make assumptions: Don’t assume you know which holidays adherents of a particular tradition observe or how they observe them. For example, if Americans know of any Hindu holiday, it’s normally Diwali, but many people may not know that Jains and Sikhs also observe Diwali for different reasons. Another example: in the Jewish tradition, Hanukkah is perhaps the most well-known holiday because of its proximity to Christmas, but it’s usually not as important as Rosh HashanahYom Kippur, or three pilgrimage festivals (PassoverShavuot, and Sukkot) and doesn’t typically require missing work. Don’t know? Ask!

It’s also important to note that accommodating religious holidays is just one way to support your religiously diverse workplace. For us at IFYC, providing a work environment that respects each employee’s religious or non-religious traditions and observances is incredibly important, because our work is ultimately about taking it a step further by creating spaces where people who orient around religion differently can build relationships and work towards the common good.

Amber Hacker is the vice president of operations and finance at Interfaith Youth Core, where she oversees a wide range of functions within the organization, from finance, accounting, information technology, facilities, to talent development and HR.

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.