The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

November 29, 2013

Watercooler: Jewish worker needs a holiday from clueless bosses

By Karla L. Miller
Special to The Washington Post

— Q: I am a salaried professional coming up on 20 years at a small division of a larger entity. It's a good, flexible place to work, and people are supportive when it comes to personal issues . . . except for one blind spot.

I am the only Jewish employee. Every year, I request time off for the High Holy Days: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I use my vacation and personal leave time. I post it on the company calendar well in advance. And almost every year, management schedules an important meeting or client training on those dates. When I raise the issue, responses range from "Are these holidays really that important?" to "It's too expensive for us to consider everyone's holidays" and "There was no other available date."

I think my employer could be a little more respectful to me and to our Jewish clients, and not schedule "mandatory" meetings on days when it knows I won't be there.

A: As someone who offered to bring ham biscuits to her first seder, I'm all for forgiving cultural cluelessness in otherwise well-meaning people. But since Jewish holidays shift by as much as three weeks from year to year on the Western calendar, I'm skeptical that your employer's major events just happen to coincide with them. Every. Single. Year. And if you can't get even the most clueless management to see that asking you to work on those days is comparable to asking a devout Christian to work on Easter Sunday, I think there might be some willful ignorance at play.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act doesn't care whether your employer's behavior is due to willfulness or ignorance, however. It simply notes that non-religious organizations with more than 15 employees may not treat workers differently because of sincerely held religious beliefs or lack thereof. Most states also protect workers from religious discrimination. If your employer has a pattern of intentionally scheduling major events on dates when your faith precludes you from attending and meets your objections with dismissive comments, then, according to employment lawyer Elaine Fitch of Kalijarvi Chuzi Newman & Fitch, you could have grounds for a religious discrimination complaint.

If you're not ready to file suit or if your employer is somehow exempt from anti-bias laws, try giving as little advance notice as possible regarding your holiday plans, so your employer has less opportunity to schedule meetings that conflict with your observances. And look into how many Jewish clients are being excluded from training. The specter of lost goodwill — and revenue — may help your bosses see the light.

Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office. You can find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork.