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Do I have to give non-Christian employees additional time off to celebrate religious festivals?

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Living and working in a multi-culture and multi-faith society leads to an array of religious holidays and festivals; however there is no requirement for you to give employees additional time off to celebrate them. In this article, our Employment team discusses how to deal with holiday requests around these festivals, what you can do if you can’t grant a request, as well as detailing a case that serves as an example of what can happen if requests are not handled correctly.

Due to the timetable of Christian festivals running similarly to the statutory bank holidays, they are usually free for Christians to observe, due to the closure of many businesses on these days.

However, you are under no obligation to give employees of different faiths additional annual leave to allow them to celebrate their religious festivals. If you did give additional holiday to employees of different faiths, this could amount to direct discrimination against your other employees. It is also important to note that whilst some of the bank holidays in the UK are aligned to Christian festivals, many employees, including Christians, will be required, or may choose, to work on these days.

Even though there is no right to additional annual leave, you should act in a flexible and non-discriminatory manner when approving annual leave requests from employees who are seeking time off for religious reasons, for example during Ramadan. This will reduce the risk of a claim for indirect discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief.

JH Walker Ltd v Hussain and others

In JH Walker Ltd v Hussain and others, the employer stated that no holiday should be taken during May to July. This coincided with the Muslim religious festival of Eid and consequently, a number of Muslims successfully brought a claim for indirect race discrimination. Although the employer believed that it was acting for a sound business reason, the Employment Tribunal (ET) held, and the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) subsequently agreed, that the employer had not balanced the needs of the business against the needs of the employees. The employer had not therefore taken into account that the employees had offered to work extra hours to reduce any backlog which could have allowed the requests to be approved.

What can I do if I receive a large number of requests for the same time?

Where a large number of staff request holiday leave around the same time for religious purposes, it may be impractical for you to grant all holiday requests. If you are able to anticipate that a large volume of requests will be made, you should discuss the matter with your employees and/or their representatives in advance to reach an agreement on how this could best be managed. You may also wish to consider that some religious or belief festivals are aligned with the lunar cycle, and so the dates change each year.

This should help to establish a fair system for granting leave that meets the needs of the business and does not put employees of any particular religion or belief (or those who do not hold any religious beliefs) at a disadvantage.

What if I am unable to grant the requests?

If you are unable to grant such a holiday request, you should not offer paid special leave as you need to ensure you do not discriminate in favour of a particular religion. However, you should consider whether you can deal with the request by using:

  • annual leave entitlement
  • flexi-time arrangements
  • one-off/discretionary flexi time off to be made up at a later time
  • unpaid leave

Whichever option is used will need to be agreed between yourself and the employee. It is always advisable that you write down any reasons for granting requests or any flexi-time agreed so you can ensure you are being fair to all employees in the circumstances.

If you are looking for assistance in drafting employee contracts or handbooks, or you have any queries regarding holiday entitlement, you can contact our Employment team today on 023 8071 7717 or employment@warnergoodman.co.uk.

ENDS

This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.