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Holiday smorgasbord

The Toronto Star Tony Wong; 04-14-2001

Flexible Flexible holidays serve cultural diversity

`I haven't heard of other companies doing what (Isopia has) implemented but this is certainly the kind of flexibility that is going to be key in attracting good employees.' John Jackson

Senior human-resource consultant, Watson Wyatt Worldwide

High-tech firm lets employees choose their own religious days off

BUSINESS REPORTER When Payman Odaie started a Toronto-based technology firm in a former Persian rug store, he had two other employees.

That was three years ago. Since then, Isopia Inc. has moved to plush University Ave. digs and its employee count is 240, making it one of the fastest-growing companies in Canada.

Like many technology companies, it attracted young, bright workers with an ethnically diverse background. The employees were a small United Nations in themselves.

Odaie, now chief technology officer, and his brother Omid Odaie, who joined later as president and chief executive officer, began celebrating differences within the company with baby steps.

First they paid for lunch on Fridays.

``One day it might be Persian food, another day it might be Indian food or Japanese,'' Omid Odaie says. ``It wasn't pizza all the time.''

But beyond the cultural ``window dressing'' of food, the brothers wondered whether more could be done to make their company more inclusive.

Last November, over coffee with other executives, they hit on an idea: They would allow employees to choose holidays based on their religion.

It seemed simple enough.

Canadian law allows for nine statutory civic and Christian-based holidays. Why not allow employees to choose nine days most meaningful to them? At Easter, for example, why not have several non-Christian employees staffing the help desk as just another working day?

``We have people working for us from Ireland, China, Russia, India,'' says Omid Odaie. ``It's important that we all get along.''

Isopia bills itself as the world's leading supplier of learning management software.

The company's bread and butter is software that allows clients to enrol, track and evaluate students. Revenues have grown exponentially, from $750,000 in 1999 to $7.2 million last year, with a blue-chip list of Fortune 500 clients.

Not everyone liked the holiday idea immediately.

Some executives, especially, argued it could end in a logistical nightmare for the human-resources department.

``We already do much of our business in the United States and they have slightly different holidays, which caused problems in our own staffing schedules,'' Omid Odaie says. ``We were worried it would be a nightmare of paper work.''

The other problem was that no other company seemed to be doing anything similar.

``I haven't heard of other companies doing what they have implemented but this is certainly the kind of flexibility that is going to be key in attracting good employees,'' says John Jackson, senior consultant at human-resource consultant firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide in Toronto.

Companies are actively seeking to give employees more flexible hours to help offer a balance between work and life, says Jackson. Flexible holidays seem a natural extension.

``The challenge will be in the complexity of administering this thing,'' he says. ``If you have 2,000 employees you may have 2,000 computations to do.''

Despite the lack of a template to follow, the brothers plunged ahead, initiating the holiday schedule at the start of this year.

``We had to start from scratch,'' says Omid Odaie, ``but we thought it was too important an initiative not to do.''

Within two months, one-quarter of all employees were customizing their own holiday schedules.

``I think some people might have been reluctant or even a little embarrassed in the past to say they have to be away for a certain religious holiday, but now it's condoned and accepted,'' says Gloria Pakravan, Isopia's marketing communications director, who practices the Baha'i faith.

``It's been a fabulous learning opportunity for me, because now it' s given me permission to ask other people about their faith, and they can learn about mine.''

At first, the company settled on implementing five holiday schedules built around the Christian, Baha'i, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu faiths.

India's independence day would be celebrated. Instead of Christmas Day, an employee could choose to celebrate the birth of Baha'u'llah in the Baha'i faith, or Ramadan in the Muslim holiday schedule.

There was a surprise upside. The new holiday schedule saved the company money, since it wouldn't have to pay overtime for some employees working statutory holidays.

Of course, the concept of non-Christian employees working on Christmas isn't new. But having days off due to religion has sometimes been a contentious issue.

A 1997 decision by the Federal Court of Appeal on religious holidays has been widely disparaged by human rights groups.

The case was launched by 16 public servants, who claimed the federal government was discriminating against them by not giving them paid days off for the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

The majority of the court ruled that the federal public service, which provides employees with statutory holidays on Christmas and Easter, does not have to provide paid days off for non-Christian holidays.

Justice Alice Desjardins wrote in the majority decision that, while the rules were indeed discriminatory, recognizing new paid holidays would impose undue hardship on the employer.

The Isopia model may offer a solution.

It sidesteps the issue of employees getting days off in addition to the Christian holidays by simply allowing employees to choose their days off.

That idea has been experimented with by other employers, including the City of Toronto, which has given non-Christian employees a choice of working or not working on Christmas and Good Friday.

``Attracting, engaging and retaining employees are the buzzwords today, and flexible schedules are a huge component of that,'' says consultant Jackson.

``One of the big challenges, though, is communicating that program to your employees. It's only as good as people's appreciation of the program.''

Omid Odaie agrees.

``The rest of your colleagues have to understand and support the fact that you're away in the middle of the week, that there is a reason you're not working with their schedule,'' he says.

``We had to make sure everyone was on board with this, that we're not just paying lip service.''

So far reaction seems to be positive.

Already the firm has found that it needed a more sophisticated holiday schedule template.

Other employees wanted to custom-design their own schedules, not necessarily based on traditional holidays.

Anurima Banerji became the first Isopia employee to select her schedule according to a mixture of Buddhist and Hindu faiths.

``When it becomes your choice, it's a wonderful thing,'' says Banerji.

``I hope more companies follow suit because it says the company is respecting who you are.''

©Copyright 2001, The Toronto Star

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