When the Jewish New Year came in September this year, I got many questions about calendars and holy days from Human Resource departments. They wanted to know why the holiday occurs on a different day each year according to our secular calendar. And they asked about food associated with the holiday. Offering the traditional apples and honey for a sweet New Year was the easy part. Explaining the timing was the real challenge.
What should I write about religion and religious calendars in these contentious times? I know that many organizations and companies would prefer that the issue of religious diversity would disappear. But every year, thousands of religion-based lawsuits claiming a “hostile or offensive work environment” are registered with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).
What can you do to avoid a hostile and offensive workplace when so many conflicts over religion are begun unintentionally? The bias is labeled “unconscious” when people think it’s harmless, and even fun, to joke about Jews and money, Muslims and head scarves, Sikhs and turbans. They’re surprised when people feel harassed. Isn’t it a right to exercise of their freedom of expression?
Some respond to the dilemma by insisting that no religious expression be allowed at all. Others consider that approach hostile and offensive to people of faith. How do you begin to negotiate between such polar opposites? The first step is for organizations to develop written policies around religion if they haven’t already. Without a written policy, every incident is a matter of debate and personal preference. It doesn’t take long for the resulting distrust and dislike to damage team cohesiveness.
Timing is every thing. Well-meaning companies may find employees disengaged and distanced by ill-timed scheduling decisions. Don’t hold a conference or essential meetings on a major holy day. And if you must, don’t penalize those who can’t attend. What happens when religious calendars aren’t respected? If employees aren’t able to spend time with their families on major holy days, they may feel undervalued and leave. The organization’s talent pool is diminished and it incurs the expense of replenishing it.
Consider your partners and vendors, too. For example: Don’t have a job fair on a day when diverse vendors can’t set up booths. If vendors aren’t able to observe their holy days, they may disappear. In that case, the organization not only loses needed vendors, but the communities that these vendors represent may remove themselves as customers. The organization now has fewer marketing options.
Ready to upgrade your scheduling strategies? A vital element of your company policy should be a multi-faith calendar. Religious calendars vary with seasons, months, and days. Do not try to guess the dates of major holidays. Purchase a multi-cultural calendar or get an online version, many of which are free to users.
While we may not share the same holy days, and many of us aren’t religious, respect for sacred time makes good business sense. Avoid insensitive scheduling and build credibility with employees, vendors, and customers onsite and online. Sensitivity generates good will year round. The trustworthiness you establish helps offset unintended mistakes. So check your calendars and enjoy a few apples and honey!