When Gertrude Abramson was hired as an associate professor, she told the department chairman that she wouldn't be able to work on Jewish holidays. No problem, he said, and suggested she work out the schedule with her students. All appeared to be going well, and she received glowing reviews.
But when a new dean and chairman came aboard, things changed dramatically. Abramson was charged with sick days for missing work on Jewish holidays. Department officials began calling meetings on Jewish holidays, and then they criticized her for not participating. Even department meetings were moved from Tuesdays to Friday afternoons, when Abramson observed the Sabbath. A note in her file said the "needs of the institution conflict wither her practicing religion."
When her reviews started to criticize her teaching performance and contribution to the department, Abramson complained about religious discrimination. When her position wasn't renewed, she filed suit.
Although a district court threw out the case, the 3rd Circuit found enough evidence to allow Abramson to pursue her claims of a hostile work environment, religious discrimination and retaliation. (Abramson v. William Paterson College of N.J., No. 00-5026, 3rd Cir., 2001)
Advice: As long as it's not an "undue hardship," you have to provide reasonable accommodations to employees' religious beliefs. Make sure new supervisors and managers know what type of accommodations already are offered to each worker, and point out those accommodations when they start their new job. Don't roll back accommodations promised under old regimes.
Also, don't be afraid to point out to top brass when they're on a potentially destructive course. In this case, it would have helped for an HR director or someone else to tell the new dean and chairman that they were wading into dangerous waters.
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