• The HR Specialist - Print Newsletter
  • HR Specialist: Employment Law
  • The HR LAW Weekly
  • The HR Weekly

Holiday scheduling: 7 steps to help you keep the peace


Issue: Scheduling employees during the holidays can cause logistical and legal headaches.

Risk: At the least, hurt feelings and dampened morale. At the worst, a messy religious-discrimination lawsuit.

Action: Minimize holiday scheduling hassles with these smart preventative measures.


You need a certain number of employees to work during the holidays, even on Christmas and New Year’s. But, so far, your supervisors aren’t getting many volunteers, and more vacation requests are coming in than you can approve.

What to do? Can you force employees to work certain days? Maybe, but that could trigger a religious-bias lawsuit.

Federal law says you must make a reasonable effort to accommodate employees’ “sincere” religious beliefs, including trying to give them time off for religious observances.

The best way to minimize scheduling disputes, especially around religious holidays, and avoid legal trouble is through a few smart preventative measures:

1. Make clear to applicants and new hires that they may need to work holidays or Sundays, or even overtime hours.

2. Start planning early. Some employers start planning for the holiday season in January, asking employees their preferences about holidays they’d be willing to work, noting who has seniority status and who worked on holidays the previous year.

3. Consider seniority and previous holiday service. Some employers rely strictly on seniority when deciding who gets first choice for time off; others keep track of who worked previous holidays. Both ways have the advantage of letting employees know what to expect, plus it leaves less room for favoritism accusa-tions.

4. Let money do the talking. You’re not required to pay employees a higher rate just because they work on holidays. But holiday-pay bonuses can help fill the schedule and satisfy those irked by having to work a holiday.

5. Spread the burden. Call on as many employees as possible and break shifts down into smaller increments. By dividing work schedules equally, you’ll be less likely to key in on certain employees for holiday work.

6. Don’t make assumptions. Single people often get leaned on to work holidays. But what if your single employees are all minorities or members of the same religious group? You could give the appearance of discriminating by forcing them to work unfavorable hours.

7. Keep track of all requests for holiday time off. And keep a log of your organization’s attempts to accommodate em-ployees’ leave requests. If you think an employee’s request will place an undue hardship on your organization, write down the alternatives you suggested to accommodate the employee. If the employee refuses your accommodation, document the refusal.

Avoiding religious bias

It’s best to try to accommodate religious-related leave requests whenever possible. Employees are well aware of their religious-bias rights. Lawyers for religious- advocacy groups say that as holiday season approaches, they receive more calls from employees asking about their rights. Many calls result in legal action.

But federal law says that you can still force people to work on religious holidays or the Sabbath, regardless of their religious needs, if their absence would create an “undue hardship” on the business.

That means the organization’s or department’s well-being would be seriously hampered by the person’s absence and you have no way to reasonably accommodate the request. (Example: No other qualified employee is available to swap shifts.)

Final tip: Don’t try to second-guess an employee’s claim of a “sincere” religious belief; courts are quick to back up employees’ beliefs, even those that seem flaky.