Awareness of Religious Discrimination during the Festive Season

08 December 2020

Australia is a vibrant and multicultural nation, which requires employers to be aware of the risk of discrimination during the festive season. It’s important that festive functions such as Christmas parties, recognise cultural and religious diversity.

In issue

  • The festive season is well and truly upon us as we see our city and shopping centres dressed in vibrant Christmas decorations. However, this begs the question of whether such expressions are appropriate in workplaces and leaves employers pondering what the ‘correct’ approach is to the celebration of Christmas in the workplace. While Christmas is a predominantly Christian festival, it’s increasingly celebrated as a cultural event, including in the workplace.
  • Employers ought to be cautious of workplace decoration and festive functions so as to ensure they respect and consider the beliefs of non-Christian employees. Recognising and embracing diversity in the workplace helps all staff feel valued and creates a positive workplace culture. This goal must be acknowledged and contributed to in the midst of the festive season.

The background

Anti-discrimination legislation in Australia prohibits unfair treatment of employees because of their religious beliefs (holding, or not holding, a religious belief or view that is nor against the law) or religious activity (taking part, or not taking part or refusing to take part, in a religious activity that is not against the law).

Employers can be held liable for discriminatory conduct in the workplace, as well as individuals involved in the conduct.

Practical implications for employers

Does this mean celebrating Christmas or having a Christmas party may open up your business to religious discrimination claims? Not necessarily. Rather, the key is to ensure employers take those positive steps and make sure no one feels excluded or forced to participate in workplace festivities. There are numerous things you can do as an employer to cater for varying religions including:

Office décor

Employers are encouraged to utilise common sense and reason regarding decorations in the workplace. As the office or workplace is a universal area representing the employer as a whole, the most important consideration is that decorations are not to create an unnavigable workspace. Accordingly, employers are encouraged to tread on the side of caution when it comes to displaying any majorly religious decorations that may offend the beliefs of others.

Christmas parties

Employers must be careful to take various religions into account when planning the date, location, theme and catering for Christmas parties. For example, ensuring no-alcohol options are available, accommodating for any dietary requirements including vegetarian or vegan options, avoidance of any potentially offensive themes and finishing time in order to cater for individual employee circumstances. Employers should therefore liaise with their employees, making themselves aware of certain arrangements that may leave staff from different religions disadvantaged and then review or alter proposed arrangements accordingly.

Days off

Christmas is traditionally a slow time of year for certain business and as such it is common practice for employees to take time off during the festive period. However, there may be unique circumstances wherein certain employees wish to take time off during other times of the year for other cultural or religious holidays. If it is reasonable to do so, employers are encouraged to cater for such beliefs in order to ensure an employee of a chosen religion or belief is not at a particular disadvantage when compared to other employees. It is important to be aware of other cultural or religious holidays during the festive season to ensure equal opportunities for all employees.

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