Canada is touted as a multicultural country and the home of many religious groups, but it is still the case that the two statutory religious holidays in Ontario – Christmas and Good Friday – belong to one faith tradition. If you are a mid to large-sized employer it is very likely that some of your staff will celebrate different holidays and make leave requests at different times of the year. As workplaces become more diverse, employers should be mindful of the Ontario Human Rights Code (the Code) and its prohibition of discrimination on the basis of religion or creed, a protected ground under the Code. Employers should also be aware of the Code obligations regarding religious accommodations. With Diwali coming up, it seems like a great time to review these responsibilities!

The Code and Religious Holidays

Under the Code, employers have an obligation to provide religious accommodations to their employees up to the point of undue hardship. In order to address any potential adverse impact to the employee from the time they take off to celebrate religious holidays, the employer can offer options like special/compassionate paid leave, overtime or compressed work week arrangements. An employer must establish undue hardship in order to circumvent their obligations under the Code. In most cases, meeting the standard for undue hardship would be difficult and an accommodation of the employee’s request would be expected.

What is a Religious Activity?

Many religious traditions have more than one holiday or practice and it can be hard to distinguish which creed-based activities require accommodations in the form of time off from work. Accommodating religious beliefs does not necessarily require employers to offer paid time off for every creed-based activity. Not all religious activity demands time off. For instance, attending the mosque for Eid or the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah is not the same as attending a social event hosted by a religious group. While an employee may or may not ask for paid time off to attend the latter, it is important to keep these distinctions in mind when employees make these requests.

Time Off Isn’t for Everyone

A final thought to keep in mind is that two employees who belong to the same faith tradition may approach holiday celebrations differently– and that’s okay! Some people don’t feel comfortable taking the day off and others just don’t want to. Employees are going to display different attitudes about their traditional holidays, and it is important that everyone’s perspective is respected. More than anything, employers should endeavour to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable being their entire selves at work and can request time off without fear that they will be viewed as less invested in the business.

Everyone deserves to spend time with their loved ones and enjoy their traditions. Make sure your workplace makes this a priority!