Should You Close the Office for Martin Luther King Jr. Day?

Are Your Racially Insensitive If You Don’t?

Martin Luther King Jr street sign
Joel Carillet/E+/Getty Images.

No sooner does the universe get back to business after that long slog called Christmas-New Year’s than firms, large and small, must consider whether to close for another federal holiday smack in the month of January, right when everyone has just started to get back into their work groove. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, honoring the civil rights champion and Nobel Peace Prize winner who was assassinated in 1968, falls on the third Monday in January, which tends to be near or on his birthday.

(He was born on Jan. 15, 1929.)

President Ronald Reagan signed a bill into law in 1983 that established a federal holiday for King. The federal holiday was observed for the first time on Jan. 20, 1986. An earlier effort to create a federal holiday honoring King had failed in Congress in 1979. Some opponents protested the cost of adding another federal holiday to the roster. Some thought it inappropriate to establish a holiday honoring an individual, especially one who had never held a federal office. The only other federal holidays honoring individuals are for Christopher Columbus and for George Washington (although Washington’s birthday celebration has morphed into Presidents Day in some places). Columbus, of course, carries his own set of controversy. Acclaimed for discovering the “New World,” he didn’t exactly have a good civil rights record himself. Washington, a Revolutionary War leader and the first president of the United States, also happened to be a slave owner.

Some states were a little slower to adopt a holiday honoring King. Mississippi has designated the third Monday in January as a holiday for the observance of the birthdays of King and of Robert E. Lee. A general of the Confederate Army during the Civil War, Lee was born on Jan. 19, 1807. Alabama also honors both on the holiday, as does Arkansas.

The question is, should you shutter your law firm for Martin Luther King Jr. Day? It is a federal holiday and a state holiday (albeit of slightly varying names). The New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq will be closed for it. At the same time, not every business closes. Malls tend to be open, as do other businesses of varying sizes.

Let’s be real: Not all businesses close for federal holidays. Some holidays are more observed than others. While some firms might close for New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, they might offer a number of ‘floating holidays’ where the employee gets to choose a certain number to observe, like Columbus Day, Presidents Day, Veterans Day, other days generally, and, possibly, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Why close? Out of respect, of course, for Martin Luther King Jr. and for the causes he championed and for people who consider him a hero. Closing for this day can also demonstrate respect for employees who observe, for clients who observe, and for others with whom you do business who observe. Closing on this day can create a bit of goodwill for your firm with any number of people, while staying open could possibly have deleterious effects on employee engagement and on your firm’s reputation on diversity.

Why remain open? Possibly because your business slowed down at the end of the year thanks to Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s and all that celebrations around those holidays entail and right about now, you need to be focusing on your business and keep it moving and catch up on all that you should have finished in November and December and bring some money in. Some people may be more neutral about whether and to what extent King’s endeavors are relevant to them personally. Some people may be more neutral about any number of federal holidays, such as Christmas (ultimately, a religious holiday) and Thanksgiving (which, to some, has religious overtones — to whom, after all, are we giving thanks?).

If firm management is on the fence about whether and how to observe Martin Luther King Jr.

Day, some compromise may be reached. Perhaps allow lawyers and staff to take personal days should they choose. Perhaps have the firm stay open but dedicate the day to pro bono service. President Bill Clinton signed the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday and Service Act into law in 1994, which paired community service with observation of the holiday.

Are you racially insensitive if you do not close your office for the day? Ultimately, you will have to decide.