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Do employers need to grant their employees annual leave for a religious celebration?

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Working in a multi-culture and multi-faith workplace means that various religious celebrations arise throughout the year. As we approach some of these religious celebrations, employees may wish to request leave from work to participate in such celebrations. However, there are several factors to consider when deciding whether employers should grant leave for such religious celebrations.

Are employers legally required to accept leave requests for religious celebrations?

There is no automatic right to time off to observe religious holidays, meaning there is no requirement for employers to provide employees with additional time off to celebrate them. However, to avoid the risk of any potential claims for indirect discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, employers should aim to adopt a supportive approach towards employees who wish to take time off for this reason.

Indirect discrimination occurs when an employer’s practices, policies or procedures disadvantage employees who possess a particular protected characteristic. For example, if an employer gives all of their employees Christmas off, this may indirectly discriminate against Jewish employees who would rather take a different day off instead.

Employers who receive a request for annual leave for a religious celebration need to be aware of the potential risk of a claim for discrimination if that claim is rejected. Generally, where an employer cannot grant an employee for taking time off for religious celebrations, this will be regarded as indirect discrimination unless the employer can show that the requirement is objectively justified.

Subsequently, employers will have a defence to an indirect discrimination claim if they can show objective justification, namely that any practices, policies, or procedures were a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. Additionally, an employer will have a defence if they can prove that the rejection of the employees leave request has nothing to do with the employee’s religion.

Are there any benefits for accepting leave requests for religious celebrations?

Despite there being no right to annual leave for religious celebrations, there may be several benefits for granting leave for such celebrations. Accommodating employees of different faiths and cultures is an effective way that an employer can promote diversity and inclusion, which may enhance employee morale, loyalty, and overall well-being.

Additionally, another benefit for some employers may be that they can arrange the schedule so that employees who do not celebrate Christmas can work that day and then take another day off instead, which may help with workloads.

How should employers handle requests for annual leave for a religious celebration?

There is no statutory obligation on an employee to give the reason why they want to take holiday, and in many cases, it will not be prudent for an employer to enquire. However, if an employee states that they wish to take annual leave for a religious celebration, employers should seek to accommodate the request, provided that the employee has sufficient holiday entitlement, and it is reasonable for them to be absent from work during the period requested.

Alternatively, employers should consider whether they can deal with the request by exercising any of the following options:

  • Flexi-time arrangements;
  • Discretionary time off to be made up at a later time; or
  • Unpaid leave.

If any of the above options are used, this will need to be agreed between the employer and the employee. It is always advisable that the employer writes down any reasons for granting requests or any flexi-time agreed so they can ensure they are being fair to all employees in the circumstances. If an employer rejects an employee’s request for leave for a religious celebration, the employer should communicate to the employee the reason their request is being rejected.

If an employer is unable to grant the request, they should not offer paid special leave as they need to ensure that they do not discriminate in favour of a particular religion.

Next steps

Employers should have a clear policy in force in respect of the timing of holidays and the processing of requests. This will assist employers in handling request for annual leave for religious celebrations and help demonstrate that their decisions are made objectively and fairly.

Our Peace of Mind Team can provide specific advice on granting annual leave for religious celebrations and our document audit team can help you draft a policy for the timing of holidays and the processing of these requests. If you have any other employment related questions, please contact our employment law team by emailing employment@warnergoodman.co.uk or by calling 023 8071 7717.