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Accommodation up in the air at Express Jet

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Recently, Express Jet Airways placed a Muslim flight attendant on unpaid leave after she refused to serve alcohol during flights. The action came after a fellow flight attendant complained about having to perform additional duties.

The Muslim flight attendant filed a complaint with the EEOC, noting that Express Jet—which flies scheduled routes for American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express—had accommodated her beliefs for two years already. She also claimed that the co-worker who complained about additional duties had made anti-Muslim comments.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act bars employers from discriminating against an employee because of his or her religious beliefs. It requires accommodating employees’ religious beliefs as long as doing so does not impose an undue burden on the employer.

It turns out that the Muslim flight attendant’s previous accommodations had only been informal agreements between her and her co-workers that they would serve alcoholic beverages in her place. Only once an employee complained did management get involved.

The case illustrates the pitfalls of such informal accommodation arrangements. The disciplined flight attendant argues that the accommodation she requested had worked for two years and therefore could not possibly be an undue burden to the employer.

Express Jet argues the employee is not performing one of the job’s essential functions.

To prevent a similar situation, employers should institute a few rules. First, require all requests for religious accommodations to go through management. Include a clause in your employee handbook stating that you will only honor religious accommodation requests submitted through the company’s formal accommodation process.

While the request process can be strict, the law requires the accommodation process to be flexible. For example, trading duties may seem fairer than simply shifting them.

Finally, remember that employers have a duty to provide a harassment-free workplace. Immediately address religiously discriminatory statements when they occur to let employees know such speech is not appropriate in the workplace.

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