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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Observe & Report: How to Take Time Off for Religious Reasons

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You have a life outside of work and you have commitments that sometimes conflict with your working schedule. Everyone does. But when those commitments are religious observances, it can feel especially tricky to navigate them in the office.

With its strict business hours and measly two weeks of vacation, the working world isn’t always exactly amenable to taking time off for non-commercialized holidays, early morning worship, or periods of fasting. And though employers must legally try to accommodate your needs, they won’t all make it easy for you, and it can be difficult to stand up for yourself if you feel like you’re the only one asking for special arrangements.

But keeping your boss happy and staying true to your faith don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Whether you’re looking for a new job or navigating your current one, here’s a guide to making your professional life and your spiritual life work together.

Finding the Right Schedule

When you’re considering positions, make your scheduling needs a priority. Most employers will tell you about standard work hours, but you should also ask about after-hours networking events, team-building activities, and the possibility of all-nighters before a deadline that might conflict with your worship or holiday schedule.

Be open about your needs, and find out if the employer has a formal policy regarding time off for religious reasons (or anything else that might affect your practices—like a dress code). What holidays does the company already observe? What kind of notice do you need to give before taking time off? Does HR require documentation? If the position can’t accommodate your calendar or other needs, it might not be the best fit.

Allison Dean, a nurse in Houston, had to make that call, and ultimately she decided a job change was necessary to accommodate her worship preferences. She traded the unpredictable hours of working in a hospital for the stable schedule of being a school nurse. “The switch allowed me to worship with my family on Sundays and Wednesdays, and summers off mean that I can take trips to church-related events. I didn’t have these options when I worked for the hospital, and it was definitely worth it to take a job that allowed me to put priority on my faith,” she explains.

Making it Work

Whether you need to take the Sabbath off each week, leave early for services, or just work around your annual Ramadan fasting, if you minimize the impact your schedule has on your workplace, your boss and colleagues will be much more willing to work with your needs.

Many bosses, like Iwona Keel, Community Director for UDR Properties, won’t mind bending the workplace norms if you can be flexible, too. “I'm willing to work with you on scheduling, as long as you’re willing to compromise a little, too. If you’re willing to come in early or stay late to make up for time off, I’m happy to find a way to meet your needs,” she says.

If you’re taking a partial day off to worship or fast, offer to come in early or stay late, or give your employer (and co-workers) some options to contact you that won’t conflict with your religious observance.

You can also look for a colleague whose needs complement yours—maybe there’s a mom who needs to pick up her children from school and would prefer to come in early, allowing you to attend services in the morning and stay at work later in the evening.

Sarah Stinson, an implementation consultant from Virginia, has seen success in the buddy system: “One of my Jewish colleagues happily traded Saturday shifts for Sunday or Monday shifts. It was a win-win for everyone, since some people attended services on Saturday or Sunday, and other people liked to have a day off during the week for appointments and errands.” Talk with your employer and colleagues about setting schedules that work for everyone—you’re probably not the only one who could benefit.

Planning for Your Absence

Even if you’ve discussed your needs with your company from the get-go, and your boss has agreed to accommodate them, you should prepare for time off for a religious holiday just as you would for any vacation day. Don’t assume that everyone will keep tabs on your time off, either—unless your boss shares your faith, she probably won’t remember when your holy days are.

Instead, give your boss a heads-up as soon as you know the dates of your absence, and remind her as it gets close. From a manager’s perspective, Keel notes, “I can take care of most issues with enough notice, and I need to be consistent about allowing time off. Giving notice as soon as you know about a conflict makes it much easier for me to accommodate your needs.”

Before you leave, wrap up your projects and leave documentation for your co-workers while you’re gone. Leave an emergency contact for any outstanding work, and set up an out-of-office message if you’ll be gone for several days.

Dealing With Conflict

U.S. law clearly states that employers cannot discriminate on the basis of religion and must make reasonable accommodations for religious needs. But unfortunately, not all managers are willing to work with their employees—and some can make your life pretty difficult when they do.

That doesn’t mean you should take it. If you’re getting pushback from your boss for taking Good Friday off or not attending an impromptu client dinner on a night you attend worship, check with HR to see if your company has a written policy that does accommodate your religious needs. Sometimes, it’s just a miscommunication—a review of the policies with HR and your boss may be all that’s needed.

If the HR route doesn’t produce results, you do have legal recourse. For more information, check out the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s website. The Anti-Defamation League also provides resources explaining the rights and responsibilities related to religious accommodation in the workplace.

Many companies and managers are more than willing to work with you to meet your schedule and religious needs, though finding that solution may take flexibility on your part. But be open about your requirements, and you’re more likely to be able to work things out. Throughout my career, I’ve found that communicating my needs clearly has been important—and by doing so, I’ve been able to meet both my work and religious commitments without creating conflict or awkwardness at the office.