Daily observances such as prayers and dietary concerns also important 

Canadian HR Reporter
July 13, 2009

Phil Schalm

On a daily basis, Canadian workplaces are a gathering place for people from various cultures around the world. This diversity of backgrounds, perspectives and viewpoints can provide many advantages for employers, but what happens when personal requirements and observances do not conform to established business operations?

Canadian businesses were historically built around Christian traditions. Several statutory holidays, including Christmas and Good Friday, follow Christian observances. But, with an increasing number of employees not of the Christian faith, organizations have to figure out how to manage the many religious and cultural events that fall outside traditional statutory holidays.

It’s common for employers to ask employees to use vacation time to observe non-Christian holidays. Others may offer individuals a paid leave separate from vacation allotment and request employees make up the time. Some employers simply provide employees with a pool of paid days, such as 10 earned days per year, that can be used for a variety of reasons, such as illness, bereavement, snow days, personal emergencies and religious holidays not covered by statutory holidays.

Beyond major holidays, there are daily observances employers have to be aware of in order to create a positive environment for all team members. For instance, some religions might follow strict clothing guidelines, dietary requirements or prayer schedules that sometimes require separate male and female facilities in which they can perform their pre-prayer ablutions. Provisions for these employees should be as natural as possible and not be designed to isolate or single out particular groups as being abnormal or special.

For example, one Toronto workplace has a room marked “prayer room.” The organization converted a meeting room into a place where individuals of any religious background can break for a moment of prayer. No particular decor designates the space as belonging to one faith or another, so the room is welcoming for all.

When it came to ensuring Toronto’s Ryerson University felt inclusive for all, the HR team engaged leaders from various religious communities to better understand potential areas of conflict in cultural practices.

If an employer doesn’t have this kind of access to individual staff members, there is a lot of information available outside the organization. For instance, TRIEC’s www.hireimmigrants.ca is a great resource for diversity strategies, including case studies on how other businesses have successfully responded to an increasingly diverse workplace.

Some organizations engage a diversity consultant to help review current practices and bring forward solutions that ensure all employees feel the employer is respectful and responsive to their needs.

“Not only can this be a legal issue, but managers need to be aware and prepared to deal with religious and cultural observances from a greater corporate culture perspective,” says Lisa Mattam, president of the Mattam Group, a Toronto-based management consulting firm, who has helped many companies navigate these issues and develop diversity plans.

“Since they’re on the front line, and most often the ones answering questions and requests, they need to be equipped with communication skills and knowledge.”

Employers should be clear on their responsibilities from a policy perspective. It’s up to the organization to decide whether it simply wants to be aligned with current laws regarding holiday time or go further to reflect the diverse nature of the workplace. Then it’s a matter of establishing a structure that makes it easy for everyone to understand.

When it comes to religious observances, employers are dealing with closely held values and strong emotions. Understandably, some employers find it difficult to discuss religious ¬observances out of fear of ¬raising dissension. However, simply raising the topic, even if the situation can’t be immediately resolved, can actually produce a more open dialogue and productive work environment.

Instead of being overwhelmed by trying to address every potential scenario right away, it might be wise for an employer to start with one solvable issue and work through it in a way that instils confidence and provides a basis for moving forward. For example, look at implementing a prayer space or managing various lunchroom requirements and use that experience to deal with other issues.

Sometimes there are quick solutions if all parties work together, says Mattam. One of her clients has an employee who, instead of using on-site prayer facilities, goes to the mosque. He can be there and back in 15 minutes. His team members respect this time and know he’ll be back shortly to help out if a critical issue arises in the workplace while he’s away.

Employees also share in the responsibility to create a truly multicultural workplace. Employers and employees have a lot of to learn when it comes to respecting various observances and collectively trying to create new solutions that work for everyone.

Phil Schalm is program director at the Gateway for International Professionals at the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University in Toronto. For more information, visit www.ryerson.ca/ce/gateway.

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Reference: Canadian HR Reporter