Bosses told to bring back Christmas
Britain’s equality chief has blamed over-anxious employers for a killjoy approach to Christmas and told them not to worry about offending other faiths with festive parties, cards or the Lord’s Prayer.
David Isaac, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), said it was time to take a “common sense approach” in dealing with religion at work.
“Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right and it shouldn’t be suppressed through fear of offending. Lots of employers have now become really worried about doing anything discriminatory regarding their Muslim or Jewish staff,” he told The Sunday Times.
He added that employers were sometimes driven to “extreme and disproportionate behaviour” which “could . . . produce some sort of resentment about special treatment”.
He set out practical responses to a series of controversies, insisting that current laws were sound but had been misinterpreted — whether through a lack of understanding or for fear of causing offence.
“There are a lot of myths out there when it comes to dealing with religion at work. I want to put the record straight.”
While some refer to Christmas as “the winter holidays” in an attempt to be culturally sensitive, Isaac said: “It is OK to hold a party and to send Christmas cards. Most Muslims and Jews that I know adhere to their own religious beliefs of course, but to some extent acknowledge that Christmas happens and to some extent, with a small “c”, celebrate it. This is people’s lived experience and we need to reflect it.”
Dame Louise Casey, the government’s integration tsar, recently said the celebration of Christmas was among British traditions that needed to be defended to help prevent social divisions.
She criticised “an incredibly well-meaning white manager” of a community centre who referred to a Christmas tree as a “festive tree” because he feared offending his Muslim workers.
Isaac said the cinema chains that banned a Church of England advertisement featuring the Lord’s Prayer should not “suppress” freedom of religion out of concern about offending cinema- goers.
Employers could decide “to provide facilities for special religious diets” and some were concerned that it would be “unlawful” not to provide “two microwaves for different kinds of food” such as pork.
But he said the EHRC view was: “You have to have a balanced debate about what is proportionate. You don’t need to have two microwaves.”
New EHRC guidelines on religion in the workplace, to be published this week, will also state that employers do not have to agree to an employee’s request for time off for a religious holiday or a pilgrimage.
They must, however, give the request proper consideration. If the employee wanted to use statutory or contractual paid leave, it could be difficult to show the refusal was proportionate unless their absence might harm the business.
There is no requirement to allow employees time off to pray in the workplace during work hours.
This might disrupt the operation of a production line or affect staff-to-child ratios in a school or nursery.
Isaac urged businesses: “Just be sensible in how you reach decisions.”