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Keep the faith: You can accommodate religions in the workplace

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Firing,Hiring,HR Management,Human Resources

An employee refuses to trim his dreadlocks, saying they are essential to his practice of Rastafari. A cashier insists she has a right to tell customers, “Have a blessed day.”

A waiter says covering his tattoos would violate his Kemetic faith, an ancient Egyptian religion. An employee posts a “Jesus Saves” sign at his desk in the company lobby.

An employee asks for time off on Halloween to celebrate the Wiccan New Year. Two non-Christian employees ask their employer to ax the company Christmas tree and wreath.

These are all cases that the courts have recently decided.

The law

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from religious discrimination. It outlaws treating employees or applicants differently based on their religion in any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, promotions, discipline and pay.

It also requires employers to make reasonable efforts to accommodate religious practices. Finally, the law protects workers from religious harassment and retaliation.

The law provides exceptions for religious organizations, which may give preference to employees of their own faiths.

What's new  

Religious discrimination complaints are on the rise. The EEOC received a record 2,880 charges of religious bias in 2007. Complaints from Muslim workers have increased sharply over the past few years.

To help employers comply with the law, the EEOC issued specific guidelines in July 2008.

How to comply

Employers must erase all forms of religious bias in the workplace.

Base all employment decisions on objective, written criteria. Publish a well-publicized policy protecting religious expression and forbidding harassment. Include a description of forbidden behaviors and a procedure for reporting complaints.

According to the EEOC, “Employers should not try to repress all religious expression in the workplace.” Expression at employee workstations is OK as long as it is not disruptive.

Employers may restrict religious expression, however, if it might cause customers or co-workers to ascribe the beliefs to the employer. For example, the “Jesus Saves” sign cited above was permitted in an employee’s workstation, but not in the lobby, where customers could see it.

Supervisors and managers should avoid religious expressions that may make subordinates feel pressured into conforming to their beliefs.

Respond immediately to harassing behaviors, regardless of whether you receive a complaint. Make it clear that your company does not tolerate harassment of any sort.

Accommodating religious beliefs

Under the law, employers must make a reasonable effort to accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs. The law requires employers to grant accommodations as long as they do not pose more than a minimal cost or burden.

When requesting an accommodation, an employee should provide enough information to allow the employer to understand the conflict and the need for accommodation.

Some common accommodations include schedule changes, shift swaps, transfers, changes in job tasks, exceptions to dress and grooming codes, exemptions from payments to unions and other organizations, designated work space or additional breaks for prayer, and exemptions from participation in some activities. Employers don’t have to make accommodations that violate collective-bargaining agreements or seniority systems.

Transfers should be a last resort. If the only possible accommodation is a transfer to a lower-paying position, the employer may offer the transfer but leave accepting it to the employee.

The employer doesn’t have to provide the employee’s first choice of accommodations.

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