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Christmas in the workplace

4 December 2017


We are now in the lead up to Christmas, an important day for all to spend time with loved ones and celebrate the passing of another year. In 2017 Christmas will touch readers in different ways. 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 and some people are resistant to the idea of Christmas as a public celebration at all. Problems can arise 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 the direction from her employer 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 because of her religion. The Canadian authority that heard the dispute found that 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 whose religious views caused trouble at Christmas time. 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.

This arrangement worked well until the ownership of the drug mart changed hands. The new owners were unwilling to continue past practice and 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 to Canada’s Grievance Settlement Board.

The Board found in Jones’ favour. It was decided that the new owners were aware of Jones’ religious beliefs and failed to take any steps to accommodate them. As a result of this failure, Jones was left with no choice but to resign. His claim was therefore successful.

The scarcity of similar cases in New Zealand hopefully suggests that New Zealand employers and workers are more successful in resolving religious difficulties during the festive season than their Canadian counterparts.

Of course there are other ways that employment issues can arise at Christmas time; most notably around work Christmas parties. Everyone knows at least a few stories about an employee who has had too much to drink at a Christmas party and insulted their boss or made a move on a colleague. But often the trouble can start long before the drinks start flowing and the lights go down.

Last Christmas a Counties Power employee called Phillip Sylva was dismissed as a result of planning a Christmas party. Several managers met in November to discuss an unofficial Christmas party. Mr Sylva offered to host the event at his house and asked whether Counties Power would fund the transport and alcohol. Counties Power declined to do so as they did not support the function.

Mr Sylva then rang a client of Counties Power and asked them to help pay for food and alcohol for the party. He even said he would provide the client with a purchase order from Counties Power if needed.

Unsurprisingly the client was not impressed and called another employee who was their actual client liaison at Counties Power. Mr Sylva was called into a meeting with his manager and asked what happened. After receiving a written statement from Mr Sylva about what had happened and meeting with him a further two times, Counties Power concluded it no longer had trust and confidence in Mr Sylva and dismissed him.

Mr Sylva brought a claim of unjustified dismissal that was decided in the Employment Relations Authority earlier this year. The Authority member found Mr Sylva had breached company policy and misused his delegated financial authority. The employer’s decision to dismiss Mr Sylva was found to be justified and he was required to pay $4,500 toward Counties Power’s legal costs.

Christmas is a happy time of the year, but it can also be stressful, busy, and a breeding ground for trouble. So as we head into this busy Christmas season and the end of 2017, the key lesson for all employers and employees is to make wise decisions in the midst of chaos and be sensitive when dealing with delicate matters such as religion.

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

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