Labour Bulletin | 31 March, 2011 | Hot Topics:
Easter is almost upon us and we were discussing leave plans, public holidays and the like at our management meeting this week. The discussions led us back to the perennial debate about religious holidays and the apparent discrimination in favour of Christians. Ishmael pointed out that the most prolific religion in the world is, in fact, the Muslim faith, while Becky pointed out that many followers of the Jewish faith have a difficult time getting employers to acknowledge leave requests to honour their religious observances.
Emotions (and religious affiliations) aside for the moment, we need to step back and look at this issue from a number of objective angles:
1. Everyone has the inalienable right to religious freedom
Our Constitution gives each and every one of us the right to believe in whichever religion we choose to and furthermore, it provides that no individual or group may be discriminated against because of their religion.
2. You don't have to observe religious events outside of your own faith
During April, you are under no obligation to observe Easter if you are not a Christian, nor Ramayana if you are not a Hindu, nor Pesach if you are not Jewish, nor the Theravadin New Year if you are not a Buddhist. Each to his own, as they say.
3. The Government determines public holidays on an annual basis
Legislated public holidays include religious, political and commercial holidays as determined by our government. As an employer you have no choice but to observe these legislated public holidays and you may not force any employee to work on these days, unless it is expressly specified in terms of an employment contract or by agreement – and then you are obliged to compensate them at the premium rate set down for public holiday work.
So, for example, all your employees are entitled to the public holidays that have been set aside for those of the Christian faith to celebrate Easter, regardless of their personal beliefs. On the flip-side of the coin, you are not obliged to provide for any other non-legislated holidays. You’re not obliged to make accommodations for the religious observances of any other faith or any other event not considered by the gazetted public holidays (for example, Maundy Thursday - which is a Christian observance).
4. Leave allowances for religious observances must be consistently applied
I personally believe that the best approach is to not unreasonably withhold leave for religious observances and to endeavour to accommodate all sectors of our religious population within the workforce. This does hold particular challenges though, especially where the work environment doesn’t allow for sporadic absences such as those industries that have a designated shut down period (often in December) and where production or delivery could be seriously prejudiced if continuous, sporadic bouts of absence prevails.
Make things easier - have a clear leave policy
At the end of the day, I guess, the crux of the matter is that you owe it to your employees to have a clear leave policy that specifies how all categories of leave will be applied – and the relevant criteria for each category. So, for example, if your company decides that annual leave (or unpaid leave, for that matter) may be taken for major religious observances – and lists the different observances that will be considered - then everyone will know without a doubt where your company stands on this matter. Of course, requests that fall outside of the determined list can be considered and either honoured (and the list updated) or denied accordingly. The key being that you should honour all reasonable requests. If your employee approaches you for leave to celebrate a Christian ritual that is only practiced by a small sect in rural outer-Mongolia – you’d be within your rights to deny his request!
The big challenge comes in ensuring that all your managers then apply this ruling consistently for all requests for leave for religious reasons. It will create a veritable hornets’ nest of trouble if one of your managers allows a Jewish follower leave to observe Pesach, for example, while another denies a Hindu employee leave to observe Ramayana.
I was told of a case where a manager denied his employee leave to observe a non-Christian religious holiday on the grounds that the manager felt that the employee “was not a devout follower of that religion, as evidenced by his behaviour and general appearance” despite the employee’s claims to the contrary.
For me, it begins to get a bit scary when managers start to evaluate the degree to which employees “believe”!
Don’t leave it up to each individual manager to decide
What I do know is that it can’t be left to each and every manager to determine the merits of leave for religious observances. This critical issue must be determined by the company and communicated, upfront, to all employees. By making religious observance leave a sub-category of annual or unpaid leave, most employees will think twice before abusing the privilege as it doesn’t benefit them to squander their limited leave. Unfortunately, it is the well-intentioned, accommodating employer who makes provision for paid religious leave that’s more likely to get conned by the charlatans amongst us who will deny others the chance to paid leave for holy devotion.
Clarify your religious leave policy now
So, in a nutshell, when it comes to leave our Government determines which religious observances will automatically be treated as paid leave – and you need to determine the outcome for all other religious leave requests. With so many religious observances (and holidays) coming up in April, I suggest you get working on clarifying your religious leave policy now – or start researching the rituals of outer-Mongolia and beyond!
Until next time.
Editor-in-chief - Practical Guide to Human Resources Management
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Labour Bulletin Editor
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