Compliance During the Holidays: Following Regulations on Employer Anti-Discrimination

Melody Saveall
Senior Editor
Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2018


With Halloween already past and the holiday season just ahead, it is important to remember the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidances on respecting employees’ religious beliefs, and reasonably accommodating them. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 governs these policies and it requires employers to accommodate religious beliefs, practices, and observances if the beliefs are “sincerely held” and the reasonable accommodation poses no undue hardship on the employer. Being familiar with anti-discrimination policies and regulations will help ensure your company is in compliance.

Title VII requires an employer with 15 or more employees, once on notice, to reasonably accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with a work requirement, unless providing the accommodation would create an undue hardship. Under Title VII, proving an undue hardship requires showing that the particular proposed accommodation poses a “more than de minimis” cost or burden.

There are flexible ways to reasonably accommodate employees’ religious observances that may allow an employer to avoid undue hardship. If methods of requesting time off prevent newer or part-time employees from observing holidays, employers can give more employees half days off, rather than giving fewer employees an entire holiday off. This is particularly important to consider this year, since the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve.

Employers must accommodate both holidays they are familiar with as well as those religious practices with which they may be less familiar. Title VII also applies to non-theistic “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” Further, failure to comply with this section of Title VII may result in workplace discrimination liability. For example, in Uberti v. Bath & Body Works, a Wiccan employee sued her employer for religious discrimination, alleging that she was terminated because she took a vacation day for Halloween. The case ultimately settled out of court.

For employers planning on hosting holiday parties, which may include Christmas traditions rather than non-secular celebrations, it is crucial to respect an employee’s decision not to participate and continue to maintain non-discriminatory practices in the workplace following that decision. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses have alleged religious discrimination related to Halloween festivities. In Morales v. PNC Bank, N.A., an employee alleged that she was fired for refusing to attend a company Halloween party after she explained to her supervisor that she could not participate for religious reasons. In Meraz v. Jo-Ann Stores, Inc., an employee declined to dress up for Halloween and claimed she suffered reduced work hours and demotion as a result.

While we all love celebrating the holiday season, employers must be mindful of employees’ needs and recognize these needs may conflict with the interest of the business. However, it is important for employers to remain non-discriminatory, and to make reasonable accommodations so every employee, no matter their religion, can celebrate however they choose. Adherence to the EEOC’s guidances on avoiding workplace discrimination and accommodating beliefs will help your company maintain compliance and avoid liability during the coming holiday season.