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Give sensitivity this Christmas

23 December 2014

We are now in Christmas week, which is something that will touch readers in different ways. Of course for many the historic significance of Christmas is the birth of Christ and the impact that has on Christians and, to a lesser extent, the society we live in.

However, newer themes have clearly emerged over the years. Christmas is a time for family reunification.

Where families are fractured it can be a sad time for some. It is also a chance to give gifts as a sign of affection.

Problems can arise, however, when these different themes come together in the workplace, as two Canadian employment disputes highlight. 

Rosie Barillari was a Christian with deeply held beliefs. She worked for the Ministry of Community and Social Services in Ontario, Canada. One Christmas, Barillari decided to give gifts to her co-workers. She handed out pens to her colleagues and attached to these a small tag with a hand written piece of scripture.

Unfortunately for Barillari, some of the co-workers found the scripture offensive and complaints were made to the employer. As a consequence, Barillari was told that she could continue to hand out gifts but without the accompanying scripture. 

Barillari refused to heed her employer’s direction and continued as before. Not surprisingly the employer took a dim view of this and she was dismissed. 

Barillari challenged her dismissal and took a grievance on the grounds that she had been discriminated against because of her religion. 

Sadly for Barillari, the Canadian authority that heard the dispute found the employer’s prohibition on adding religious texts to the gifts was not discrimination. There was no evidence that giving out scripture formed part of her religious belief. Accordingly, Barillari’s claims were dismissed. 

Raymond Jones is another Canadian who claimed to have suffered religious discrimination. He had more success than Barrillari.

Jones was a Jehovah’s Witness who worked for a drug mart in British Columbia. Consistent with his religion, he didn’t celebrate Christmas. 

Like many stores, the drug mart where Jones worked would display Christmas decorations during the festive season.

Despite this, the owners of the drug mart were sensitive to Jones’ religious views and refrained from asking him to assist with putting up the decorations. It seems this arrangement worked well for all parties. 

Eventually ownership of the drug mart changed hands. The new owners were not prepared to exclude Jones from responsibility for hanging the Christmas decorations.

Unsurprisingly, things came to a head and Jones was given an ultimatum – hang poinsettias or be fired.

Jones instead chose to clear out his locker and resign. He later brought a claim for constructive dismissal in Canada’s Grievance Settlement Board.

The board came down on the side of the worker. It found that the new owners were aware of Jones’ religious beliefs and failed to take any steps to accommodate them. As a result, Jones was left with no choice but to resign. His claim was therefore successful.

The scarcity of similar cases in New Zealand would suggest that New Zealand employers and workers are more successful in resolving religious difficulties.

The key lesson is to be responsive and communicative – particularly when dealing with sensitive matters such as religion.

Overwhelmingly I find that people do treat each other reasonably and with respect. Particularly at Christmas time. 

I thank readers for the feedback they have given me on my column over the year and wish you all much joy as you gather with your precious families. 

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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