From the September 13, 2002 print edition
Employers cope with diversity in holidays
Few U.S. employers list the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur as employee holidays. The same goes for Ramadan, the most religiously significant time of year for the world's 1 billion Muslims.
But as the workplace has become more racially, ethnically and religiously diverse, firms have tried to devise ways for their Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto Muslim, Jewish or Baha'i employees indeed, all non-Christians to take time off to observe their holidays.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement during which Jews are asked to seek forgiveness for their sins, begins at sundown Sept. 15.
"Most organizations today have become pretty good about handling non-Christian holidays, and certainly Jewish holidays are not a new issue in the American workplace," said Julie O'Mara, principal of O'Mara & Associates in Castro Valley, which works with major employers on issues of diversity.
Most companies, especially large ones, offer what she refers to as "PTO" days personal time off that can be used by employees for any reason. Typically two to four days a year, the time off could be used, for instance, to observe Yom Kippur.
But that doesn't mean all workplaces are models of enlightenment.
"We still live in a Christian-dominated culture at the same time our workplaces have become increasingly diverse," O'Mara said. "Sometimes, non-Christian holidays or observances are just not on the radar of a company's human resources department or senior management."
That's why she is a big fan of "diversity calendars" distributed by some employers to either managers or their entire work force.
Pleasanton-based Safeway Inc. is one of those companies. Each year, Safeway passes out calendars that include up to two dozen well-known, as well as more obscure, religious observances each month.
In highly diverse high-tech, being respectful of all religious traditions is vital, said Joe Gabbert, executive vice president of worldwide human resources for Documentum Inc. The Pleasanton-based software firm gives its nearly 1,000 employees worldwide two "floating holidays" yearly and they are very popular.
"We have many Hindu and Muslim employees, and they definitely make use of these days for religious observances," he said. "A number of our employees also use the floating days to take off Martin Luther King Day in January, when they have a strong need to attend events and reflect on conditions in our society."
Some of Documentum's Catholic employees take off Good Friday, while African-American personnel use the days off to observe Kwanzaa.
"American workplaces in all industries have become much more diverse, so we, as employers, have to be more flexible today," he said.
Sybase Inc. of Dublin allows its more than 4,310 worldwide employees to take either personal days, unused holidays or accrued vacation time for any purpose, including religious observances, says Nita White-Ivy, its vice president of worldwide human resources.
Rochelle Katz, executive director of the Skokie, Ill.-based Council on Jewish Workplace Issues, said she hopes diversity programs don't become a casualty of today's poor economic conditions.
"Because of cutbacks, a lot of diversity training is getting low priority in many corporations," she said. "Some companies have never done it, and some companies are shuffling it off into a corner."
Katz added, however, things have improved in other respects.
"It's increasingly unusual for companies to call them 'Christmas' parties anymore. They're 'end-of-the-year' parties," she said. "And even though they still have traditional decorations, you see a few more menorahs and Kwanzaa candles being mixed in, too."
©Copyright 2002, East Bay Business Times