Handling employees’ religious beliefs, legally and effectively

by on April 26, 2013 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Cafe

There’s a reason for the old saying that you should be very careful when discussing religion: People can get emotional about the subject.

Add to this fact the increased emphasis on religion in society these days, and you have a perfect recipe for lawsuits by employees who feel they’ve been unfairly treated because of their faith.

What is religious discrimination in the workplace? According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it’s any conduct that subjects an employee to hostility or adverse action because of his or her beliefs.

Note: These beliefs don’t have to bear a mainstream label like Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. Beliefs are protected if they’re deeply held and have to do with right and wrong. So somebody who is a Wiccan, or Rastafarian, or follower of the Cult of the Holy Spirit, may also be entitled to protection against discrimination over their beliefs.

Like other kinds of discrimination, if you know religious discrimination is happening, you have to try to stop it, or the organization may be liable. Example: A Christian employee repeatedly tells a Muslim co-worker that her religion is barbaric. The employee’s supervisor needs to step in pronto.

But avoiding overt, hostile discrimination is the simple part.

The more complicated part, for both HR and line supervisors, revolves around what you do and don’t have to do to make room for employees’ sincere beliefs. If you fail to accommodate these, that’s discrimination, too.

What you must do
Here are three things you do have to do:

  • Find ways to keep work schedules from interfering with employees’ faith practices. One of the principal beliefs you must try to accommodate has to do with sabbaths: The belief that certain days of the week are holy, and the person should avoid working on those days. To accomplish this, you may want to facilitate shift swaps, through the use of a bulletin board, for instance. Or you could try flexible scheduling. In some cases you might even consider a lateral transfer or change of job assignments – as long as these cannot be seen as punitive or retaliatory.
  • Avoid setting rules that violate employees’ duties of religious observance. Grooming rules are particularly vulnerable in this area. Such things as beards, clothing, and even tattoos and body jewelry (per recent legal cases) may have what a court would consider bona fide religious significance.
  • Allow employees a reasonable right of assembling for religious discussion or worship on premises, if it doesn’t disrupt operations. For example, if you let employees assemble during breaks to play chess or engage in yoga sessions, you should give equal facilities to those who want to gather to pray.

What you don’t have to do
But you don’t have to tie yourself into a pretzel to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs. Here are four things you don’t have to do:

  • Go along with demands that would create unreasonable cost for the organization. If you’d end up paying overtime to five people three times a week in order to accommodate employees’ religiously motivated absences, you don’t have to let them take off. But if there’s only a little extra cost, you probably have to accommodate, and this will be the case more often than not.
  • Break up seniority arrangements. You don’t have to respond positively to an employee’s religious accommodation request if it means denying other employees their seniority rights to job or shift preferences.
  • Police every negative remark about religion. It’s still a free country, and employees are at liberty to make critical comments, within reason, about the religious beliefs or practices of others. A drumfire of criticism of an employee or religion, though, could signal trouble that you’ll want to head off.
  • Allow employees to proselytize co-workers who aren’t interested. Yes, it’s well within an employee’s rights to assert his or her belief in God or some other spiritual concept. But you needn’t put up with employees who force their beliefs on others. Example: The employee who puts up a poster of praying hands in her cubicle shouldn’t be asked to take it down. But you can rein in the employee who continues exhorting colleagues to “repent and be saved” after they’ve told the person his remarks are unwelcome.

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