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That Beastly W-2: How to Deal With ‘Unique’ Religious Accommodations

by on
in HR Soapbox

Time off to attend church … approval to keep a Bible in the office … the right to wear a religious headscarf on the job.

Employers are used to dealing with these kinds of religious accommodations. But when it comes to discrimination law, courts view “religion” very broadly, meaning you may need to approve some pretty unusual requests.

Example: Last week, a 52-year-old maintenance worker in Tennessee quit his job after seeing that his W-2 form was labeled with the number 666. The company said that simply means the W-2 sent to Walter Slonopas was the 666th one that was mailed out.

Walter didn’t see it that way. The born-again Christian says the Bible calls 666 the “number of the beast”—a symbol of the devil. Continuing to go to work would mean he would also go to hell. So he quit.

In this case, Walter doesn’t plan to sue, or return to the company even if they change his W-2 number. That, he says, would send the message that he sold out his faith for money.

The number 666 has caused other workplace issues. Just last year, a Georgia factory worker sued for religious discrimination after he was fired for refusing to wear a sticker that promoted the 666th accident-free day at the factory. (Couldn’t they just let him wear the 665 sticker for two days in a row???)

Accommodating religions: What employers need to know

The increasing religious diversity in the workforce is causing more companies to make legal mistakes. In fact, employee claims of religious discrimination in the workplace have doubled in the past decade (see chart).

THE LAW: You need to let employees express their religious beliefs while, at the same time, making sure those expressions don’t infringe on the rights of co-workers or the organization.

Federal anti-discrimination law—Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—makes it unlawful to discriminate against applicants or employees based on their religion.

The law says employers must “reasonably accommodate” an employee’s “sincerely held” religious practices unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship” on the employer. In most cases, such accommodations involve giving employees time off to attend religious services.

HOW TO COMPLY: Here’s what the law means on a practical, day-by-day level:

Hiring and firing. You can’t treat app­licants or employees less (or more) favorably in hiring, firing or other job conditions because of their religious beliefs or practices.

Proselytizing. You can’t force em­­ployees to participate (or not participate) in a religious activity at work.

Accommodation. You must reasonably accommodate an employee’s “sincerely held” beliefs and practices.

Undue hardship. You can deny a religious accommodation request if it would create an “undue hardship” on the organization’s business interests. The EEOC defines “undue hardship” as something that: “requires more than ordinary administrative costs, diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees’ job rights or benefits (or) impairs workplace safety."

Religious expression. You must allow employees’ religious expression if they’re allowed to engage in other personal expression at work, as long as the expression doesn’t impose an undue hardship on the company or infringe on the rights of co-workers or customers.

Religious harassment. You must take action and notify HR if you see or hear of an employee being harassed based on religious beliefs.

Final tip: Remember, the courts say employers must view “religion” fairly broadly. In fact, the EEOC specifically states that the size of the group the person belongs to is irrelevant to his or her right to be free of discrimination and harassment in the workplace. The same is true of workers who don’t adhere to any religion.

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