Conflict Over Observing Non-Majority Holidays: A Story from NYC’s Subway

While riding the subway in New York City, you’re likely to encounter diverse folks from all walks of life.  My rush hour commute stars a vibrant cast of characters, and as I can’t help but eavesdrop… I’ve overheard plenty of interesting, perplexing, and even offensive conversations.

Yesterday, I listened in on a young Orthodox Jewish couple recounting their work days to each other.  The woman had just finished her very first day of work at a new job, and was explaining to her husband that she had confirmed that technically, employees don’t start accruing vacation days until they’ve been at the company for 3 months.  She was concerned because the Jewish High Holy days (Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kipper) were just weeks away and she would need to take three days off.  When she approached HR, the HR representative’s response was that she was welcome to take 3 unpaid days since it’s a religious holiday, but that there was no way she could use her vacation days before the 3 month mark.  “I feel like I’m starting off on the wrong foot, but I'm not going to change who I am.” 

Yesterday at Tanenbaum, our Workplace program conducted a webinar for over 150 SHRM members on the topic of “other” holidays – the holidays that fall outside of what Americans consider the “Holiday Season.” We focused on tips for accommodating scheduling requests, and provided these HR professionals with useful facts about Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Diwali, Ramadan, and the Eid-al-Fitr.  Maybe – just maybe – that woman’s HR representative was amongst our attendees, and now has a more complete understanding of what that new employee might need in preparation for the Jewish High Holy Days, and what this time off means to her.

I know that if I interviewed a random sample of people on the subway, I would come up with similar stories.  Most of the time, employees’ religious identities stay under the radar in the workplace, and, often, time-off requests are the first time that the Human Resources department encounters an employee's religion or observances around a particular holiday.

With a bit more information, employees and managers alike can proactively address issues that come up around “lesser” known holidays. To that end, I encourage you to take a look at our helpful fact sheets for upcoming holidays, and share them with your friends, family and colleagues.

 

Annie Levers
Program Assistant, Workplace