Strike a balance on religious festivals


Easter public holidays took place a few weeks ago and Christmas public hoidays are well-established. But Scotland is now a multi-cultural society. How should you treat requests for time and facilities for religious observance?

By Alan Delaney

WITH employers facing growing pressure to accommodate employee requests for time off during religious festivals, it is essential to understand how best to respond.

Many Christian religious holidays are already provided for as UK bank or public holidays but when it comes to non-Christian religious holidays, there is no equivalent provision.
An employer that imposes a policy on holiday leave or break times, that could put employees of a particular religion or belief at a disadvantage, may risk a claim for indirect discrimination being raised under the Equality Act 2010. Therefore, where employees request holiday leave during religious festivals or occasions, employers should strive to accommodate the request, as long as it is reasonable for the employee to be absent from work during the period requested.
Ramadan – the ninth month of the Islamic calendar when Muslims observe strict fasting from sunrise to sunset – is set to begin at the end of June (either the 28th or 29th depending on the sighting of the moon). During the month of Ramadan, a ‘think flexible’ approach may be appropriate when approached with requests for time off or even rearranging breaks. For example, employers may wish to consider allowing those who are fasting to work their lunch breaks, in return for a later start or earlier finish or the flexibility to rearrange breaks to coincide with prayer times. Employers may also consider postponing planned ‘work lunches’ until after Ramadan, as those observing the month of fasting will not be able to participate. Similarly, observing Muslims may not be able to attend evening work-related events during Ramadan.
In practice, individuals who hold a particular religion or belief may differ considerably in their level of observance and custom. Requests for leave should, therefore, not be rejected on the basis that another employee who adheres to the same religion or belief has not asked for the same time off.
When arranging annual leave and anticipating the dates of religious festivals, employers should keep in mind that certain religious or belief festivals are aligned with the lunar calendar. As a result, dates change on a yearly basis and the specific dates for some festivals are not clear until quite close to the actual day. It is also important to prepare not only for annual leave requests during Ramadan but also between one and three days holiday at the end of Ramadan to celebrate Eid.
Separate to time off, an employer may decide to grant a request for a quiet room to allow employees to pray or undertake religious observance. This room should be open to all employees, whatever their religion, and employees who do not adhere to any religion should also be able to use this room for quiet contemplation.
Employers that find themselves facing a claim for indirect discrimination should bear in mind that the provision, criteria or practice being challenged may be justified by establishing that the actions amount to a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate business aim. Factors such as the size of the organisation, the nature of the work carried out, the potential disturbance to the work patterns of other employees and the commercial needs of the business may, therefore, be relevant when defending such a claim.
However, it is worth keeping in mind the recent European Court of Human Rights ruling, involving British Airways, which found that the company had failed to strike the correct balance in its dress code, when it refused an employee permission to wear a visible crucifix.
Good communication is vital and employers who approach such requests in a clear, reasonable and consistent manner, regardless of the final decision, will minimise the risk of future claims and the possibility of any grievances being raised. Adopting such an approach should also help improve employee relations, as employees will appreciate that their requests are being considered carefully, in light of their personal beliefs.
• Alan Delaney is an associate in the employment & pensions team at Maclay Murray & Spens LLP and a member of the firm’s Food and Drink team