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Accommodate religious requests; don’t debate ‘sincerity’

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

Issue: Accommodating employees' religious beliefs and practices even though you question their legitimacy.

Risk: You'll waste time (and potentially spark a lawsuit) by challenging a person's religious sincerity.

Action: Err on the side of acceptance: Do your best to accommodate all reasonable requests.

Federal anti-discrimination law says you must offer reasonable accommodations to employees' "sincerely held" religious beliefs or practices, as long as the accommodation wouldn't cause your organization "undue hardship." But how can you prove a belief is sincerely held? It's nearly impossible.

So, instead of being drawn into a messy dispute or lawsuit over whether a religious belief is sincere, err on the side of caution, and acceptance, and do your best to accommodate the employee's request.

As the following case shows, your efforts to accommodate an employee's religious-related request, no matter how bizarre, will go a long way in building good will if the dispute lands in court.

Recent case: A Costco cashier claimed that her membership in the "Church of Body Modification" required her to wear 11 ear piercings and eyebrow piercings at all times. Costco's dress code banned visible facial piercings. Still, the company twice offered her an accommodation: She could wear clear plastic retainers (spacers that would prevent the holes from closing up) or Band-Aids covering the piercing while on duty. She refused and chose not to come to work. Costco fired her, and she sued for religious discrimination.

The court sided with Costco, saying it offered a reasonable accommodation. Covering up piercings didn't infringe on the employee anymore than wearing clothing to cover tattoos. Costco wisely chose to accommodate her belief rather than fight a battle over whether her belief was "sincerely held." (Cloutier v. Costco Wholesale, No. 04-1475, D.Mass., 2004)

Online resource: For more on accommodating religious beliefs, see the EEOC site at www.eeoc.gov/types/religion.html.

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