North Carolina mirrors America’s growing diversity in many ways. Today, mosques occupy old churches, co-workers wear burqas and yarmulkes, and some employees request “prayer breaks.”
Religious diversity is a reason for celebration, but it also presents challenges in the workplace.
Since 9/11, religious discrimination claims have consistently accounted for more than 4% of discrimination claims received by the EEOC. That’s almost double the figures of a decade ago. Last year, more than 2,500 employees filed formal claims with the EEOC, complaining that they were discriminated against at work because of their religion.
Furthermore, the courts have not offered clear guidance to employers for dealing with religious issues.
5 steps to compliance
Most employers understand the basics: Federal law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act) says that it’s illegal to discriminate based on a person’s religion in hiring, firing, promotion, pay, benefits and other work conditions. The law covers employers of 15 or more people.
To comply with the federal law, follow these guidelines:
1. Beware less-obvious bias. For example, you can’t refuse to hire someone or to assign a certain employee to a favorable shift because you fear his or her religious needs will cause an absence problem.
If you have such concerns about an applicant, ask the person a direct, work-based question: “Here are the time requirements for this job. Can you fulfill them?”
2. Don’t push any one religion. Employers can’t force employees to participate in a religious activity as a condition of employment. Conversely, they can’t punish employees for participation in a religious activity.
Supervisors likely don’t do this overtly. But they could be showing their religious preferences in more subtle ways, such as giving more attention (and favorable work) to workers who attend their church. Be alert to this type of bias.
3. Don’t limit religious expression. Permit employees to engage in religious expression unless it would impose an undue hardship on your organization.
What is “undue” hardship? Generally, the EEOC says, “an employer may not place more restrictions on religious expression than on other forms of expression that have a comparable effect on workplace efficiency.”
4. Be open to different types of accommodation. Employers must accommodate employees’ “sincerely held” religious beliefs or practices unless they create an undue hardship.
Accommodation examples: changing an employee’s schedule to allow him or her to attend a religious service; allowing voluntary schedule-swaps with co-workers; modifying workplace rules, such as dress or grooming requirements.
The EEOC recently sued UPS for refusing to hire a Rastafarian as a driver because of his beard, which he wore for religious reasons.
One point: While the law says you must accommodate “sincerely held” beliefs, the EEOC doesn’t require employees to actually be “card-carrying” members of a religion to hold sincere beliefs of that religion (and earn protection under the law). So, don’t try to analyze whether an employee’s belief is sincere or not. (See more on this topic in box below.)
5. Prevent harassment. You must take steps to prevent religious harassment of employees and stop it when you become aware it has occurred.
North Carolina residents: top 5 religions
Christian (nonspecific) 6%
No religion 10%
Source: City University of New York survey
For more advice on complying with religious-accommodation law, check out these sites:
• EEOC: www.eeoc.gov/types/religion.html
• Justice Department: www.usdoj.gov/crt/religdisc/religdisc.html
• Employment Law Information Network: www.elinfonet.com/fedindex/18
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