Religious issues at work: What’s a supervisor to do?

by on May 9, 2012 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Cafe
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For years, Gretchen has been one of your best workers. Now, there’s been an important change in her life – she just converted to an evangelical Christian denomination, and her new faith makes big demands on her.

You’re fine with Gretchen’s choice – she seems happier and more motivated than ever. But then one day she comes to your office and tells you she can’t wear the uniform your organization requires any more.

“Why?” you ask, puzzled.

“My church has a very strict code on what’s considered modest attire,” she says. “We believe women shouldn’t wear pants, and pants are part of the company uniform. I’m sorry if this causes a problem, but I have to obey my conscience.”

What do you do now? Tell Gretchen she has to conform to the company dress code or face discipline? Exempt her from wearing the uniform, and face complaints from other employees who may not be thrilled about the uniform, either?

A tough call
It’s a tough call. And to make it, you need to understand federal law on religious discrimination and accommodation.

In this case, it may seem to you that Gretchen is refusing to obey a company rule. But what she’s really doing – if you understand the situation properly – is making a request for a religious accommodation.

And the law requires you to try to accommodate a sincerely held religious belief, unless it would cause undue hardship for your organization. That’s not the case here.

So what you could do, for instance, is ask Gretchen whether she’d be willing to wear a skirt and keep the rest of the uniform. She’s already stated that the pants are the issue, so your compromise suggestion should be acceptable to her. (If it’s not, you may have a problem that goes beyond religion, and you’ll want to kick it upstairs to higher management or HR.)

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