While it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas for some employees these days, employers aiming to be inclusive during the holiday season and year-round can think beyond the Christian-centric calendar.

Nora Jenkins Townson, the founder and principal of Bright + Early, has taken being inclusive one step further by giving staff at the human resources consultancy three additional paid “spiritual days” off annually. The spiritual days, which were introduced in 2019, lets employees know the company sees them as a whole person and that it wants employees of all faiths to have as much time off to observe their religion as those who identify as Christian.

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The organization’s team of 15 people is diverse, says Jenkins Townson. “We have folks who hail from different religions and ethnicities and everyone has different holidays and traditions that they celebrate. I’ve worked with many people who’ve had to use vacation days to take time off for alternative religious holidays. I just didn’t think that was fair and inclusive. We wanted to lead in being an inclusive workplace.”

Ontario’s Human Rights Code compels employers to accommodate an employee’s requests for time off to observe religious holy days up to the point of undue hardship and to ensure that the time provided doesn’t cause the employee to the extent possible that they don’t lose wages or vacation time. However, it’s important both employers and employees understand that not every request for religious accommodation would be protected under the code, cautions Stephanie Ramsay, a labour and employment lawyer at Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP.

“A social activity tied to religion may not be under the same protection as religious adherence. There needs to be a distinction between what employees need or desire for a more flexible work arrangement and what is protected under the human rights code.”

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Still, she says employers should always address requests for accommodation from a place of inclusivity and curiosity. Workforces in Canada have become increasingly diverse over the years, which means, more than ever, employers have to engage with an increased diversity of faith among workers and take steps to understand those faiths, notes Ramsay.

Where a valid request can be met with a degree of flexibility — whether through remote working or certain hours or time periods — and an employer has been using that kind of practice throughout the coronavirus pandemic, an employer would be hard pressed to say they can’t accommodate that request post-pandemic, she adds. Diversity, equity and inclusion is an increasingly important and visible issue, she says, noting employers are making commitments in this area and they’re having to take a good look at their DEI practices and ensure their commitments and practices align.

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As an HR consultancy, much of the work Bright + Early does involves advising companies on how to be great employers and part of that’s making sure it’s following its own advice and going above and beyond when it comes to the employee experience, says Jenkins Townson, noting the paid spiritual days pay off in many ways.

“It’s a business strategy as well. A team that feels recognized and included, seen and grateful is going to do better work. And employees are going to be more willing to pitch in and help each other. It’s just better for business.”

One of the benefits of the spiritual days off is seeing the impact it has on Bright+Early’s employee engagement, says Jenkins Townson. Since its implementation, the program has remained at more than 90 per cent in net promoter score. Employees are grateful for the additional days and consistently use them, she adds, noting the organization promotes the program, and all of its other benefits and perks, in its job postings and during the onboarding process.

“We get a lot of great call-outs both in the application process and from folks who share the posting as a good example of a flexible employer. It shows that we are an inclusive workplace, that we value work-life balance and taking time off and that we’re thoughtful about what inclusion looks like.”

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