Holidays create risks for religious workplace discrimination

Wisconsin employers should take care not to violate the rights of their employees during the holiday season. Although Christmas appears to be the prevalent holiday in December, people observe many other holiday traditions or no holidays at all. Employees have a right to decline participation in holiday or religious activities at work, and forcing them to participate could result in a discrimination lawsuit.

For example, a business owner or manager does not have the legal power to require workers to tell clients or customers “Merry Christmas” or use other terms specific to a religion. The only exception would be if a person accepts a job specifically meant for the celebration of a holiday, like the position of a department store Santa Claus. Generic statements like “happy holidays” could be required, but an employee has the right to refuse to use religiously-oriented terminology.

Office holiday parties present another opportunity for making employees uncomfortable. Workers should not feel pressured to go to the party or forced to wear costumes. Employers should keep in mind that not everyone celebrates holidays or the same holiday. In the same vein, an employee has the right to ask for a reasonable amount of time off to celebrate a religious holiday. An employer can only deny such a request if it can be shown that the worker’s absence would cause hardship to the company.

Religion is among the personal classes specifically protected by certain federal and state employment laws. A person who has questions about employee rights might choose to speak with an attorney who has experience with these matters. Legal counsel could provide clarification about how a specific incident might have infringed upon a person’s rights at work as well as the remedies that may be available.

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