Religious holidays and time off work

Dec 1, 2014 | Good Management

The UK workforce is much more diverse than it used to be, and consequently employers may now have workers from a variety of different religions amongst their staff, and accordingly a variety of religious holidays to contend with. Several of the UK statutory bank holidays are centred around Christian holidays, which meant for the majority of employers, time off for religious festivals was not an issue at all.

But if you have members of staff from several different religions in your business, what exactly do you need to be aware of in respect of time off for religious holidays? Here are some of our most frequently asked questions on the subject.

Do I need to give time off for religious holidays?

You should make every effort to accommodate a member of staff’s desire to take time off for religious observation, including holidays specific to his or her religion. It’s not a specific requirement that they must be given time off, but to avoid any claims of discrimination you must try to allow time off if at all possible.

Does time off for non-Christian religious holidays need to be paid?

Under the Equality Act 2010, you cannot treat a worker less favourably because of his or her religion. However that does not mean you need to give the person more paid leave than others. Indeed, if you did that you might risk a claim from other individuals who are not receiving additional holiday because they are not of that religion. So on that basis it’s fine to either require such time off to be taken out of annual leave entitlement, or perhaps offer the opportunity to take unpaid leave instead if the person wants to protect their annual leave entitlement for use at another time.

I have lots of workers all from the same religion, all wanting to take the same days off, but these are normal working days for my business, do I need to let them all have time off?

If your business requires a certain level of cover to operate and a religious holiday falls on a normal working day, you would not be expected to allow large numbers of employees to have time off simultaneously where this would leave you shorthanded and damage the business. What you could do in that situation is operate a rota system, where employees of the same religion take turns to have the various applicable religious holidays off.

I have in my annual leave policy and contracts a clause forbidding any holiday during certain busy times of the year, but I’ve discovered there is a religious holiday falls during this time. What should I do?

You don’t want to be unfair to other staff who might also want to take holiday during that time if given the opportunity, and you may have very good business reasons for imposing a blanket holiday ban at those times. However we would strongly advise you see if there is any way you can allow the time off if at all possible, and perhaps discuss with the employee in question the possibility of making the time up at different hours, or similar, rather than saying no. We would also advise that you be very certain that any blanket ban can be justified from a business point of view as this can be risky.

An employee has asked to swap Christmas Day with one of their own religious holidays, is there anything I should be aware of before I allow this?

This can be a good idea but you do need to consider whether you should offer the ability to swap bank holidays to the wider workforce, to avoid seeming unfair. If you are not normally open on Christmas Day you need to consider security/lone working issues, and also make sure there will actually be meaningful work available for the employee to do.

If you always open on Christmas Day and have to operate a rota to staff it, then obviously employees of a different religion who are happy to swap could be welcomed with open arms by those who would prefer to sit at home stuffing themselves with turkey and selection boxes…!

It can feel like a minefield, but by preparing yourself and your business in advance, you can minimise your risks.

Ensure you consider requests for religious holidays carefully, allow the time off if at all possible, and be certain any need to refuse can be justified with strong business grounds. Think creatively about ways to achieve this including using annual leave, unpaid leave or making time up.

Lastly, by making sure all holiday booking arrangements including for religious holidays are clear in a policy, everyone will know where they stand and what they need to do, which always reduces the chances of any kind of problem significantly.

If you have any further queries and need some advice, do get in touch.