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Three ways to deal with your employee's religious leave requests

by , 30 January 2013
South Africa has 13 public holidays a year. This means every year you're effectively losing two weeks' worth of work that you have to pay your employees for. And while only two of these are religious holidays, have you considered how your leave policy affects the religious holidays of your non-Christian employees? Not doing so could land you in clear violation of the Bill of Rights and Employment Equity Act. Here are three options to choose from when considering your company's religious holiday policy.

Even though South Africa's public holiday list only recognises two religious holidays (Christmas Day and Good Friday), there are seven major Jewish holidays where those who follow the faith are prohibited to work. That's an extra 12 days' leave they'll need to take for religious reasons. If your employee is Muslim, they'll take around eight religious holidays a year. 
 
But how does this affect your company? And what are your employee's rights with regards to religious holidays?
 
Warning: Your company's leave policy can't discriminate against employees on religious grounds!
 
To ensure your company's leave policy doesn't violate the anti-discrimination clauses in the Bill of Rights and Employment Equity Act, you need to ensure your company makes 'reasonable accommodations for religious groups or amends employment policies and practices to recognise religious practices of the major religious groups,' advises the Practical Guide to Human Resources Management.
 
But – and it's a BIG 'but' – what's considered 'reasonable accommodation' is entirely up to you, your Employment Equity (EE) Committee and your company's corporate culture. According to the Practical Guide to Human Resources Management, you have three options…
 
Three ways your leave policy can avoid religious discrimination
 
Option #1: Let your employee take annual leave for religious holidays
If the cost of allowing employees to take paid religious holidays is too high and complex for your company, your leave policy should allow employees to take annual leave if they wish to observe a religious holiday. This should be available to all employees, regardless of their religion.
 
Option #2: Allocate additional leave days for religious holidays
If you feel that you need to provide a certain amount of paid time off for religious holidays, consider making a determined number of additional days' paid leave available for all staff members to take during the year. This leave is over and above the minimum 15 days' annual leave requirement and should be classified as 'special leave' in your company's leave policy.
 
Option 3: Adopt a religious culture for your company
If your company is owned or managed by people who determine that they wish to close the company to observe, say, Jewish religious holidays, you need to grant these days to all their employees as paid holidays over and above the public and annual leave days they're legally entitled to.
 
And don't forget, reminds The South African Labour Guide, if you have a genuine operational reason for requiring an employee to work on a day your employee requires leave for religious purposes, you can refuse granting leave for the day without it being seen as religious discrimination.
 
Bottom line: Regardless of how you choose to let your employees take religious leave, remember that it needs to be clearly outlined in your company's leave policy and employment contract and must be fair to all employees, no matter what their religion is.

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