Religion in the Workplace

September 2, 2014

We all know that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on a job applicant’s or employee’s religion. However, did you know that federal Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws also require employers to provide workplace accommodations to employees with sincerely held religious beliefs? {note: applies to employers with 15+ employees}

So what is an employer to do when an employee asks for Sundays off to worship, or rest breaks twice daily for prayer?

The law requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would cause “more than a minimal burden” on the operations of the business. Therefore, the organization is statutorily required to make reasonable adjustments to the work environment that will allow employees to practice and adhere to their religious beliefs.

That leaves many employers wondering how to evaluate such requests. Here are a few questions that should be considered when evaluating a request for religious accommodation:

Would accommodating the request require more than minimal business costs?
Would approving the request substantially diminish productivity and/or efficiency?
Would accommodating the request pose a safety exposure or threat to the employee or others?
Would approving the request result in placing an undue and significant burden on other employees?
If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, you are most likely not required to accommodate the request. However, it is essential to thoroughly consider these questions in good faith and document the concrete reasons demonstrating how accommodation of the request would place more than a minimal burden on business operations.

While the law only requires an employer to make religious workplace accommodations upon request, in an effort to support diversity initiatives in the workplace there are some proactive best practices that an organization can take. For example, we often recommend that employers provide a limited number of “floating holidays” within the organization’s holiday policy. Floating holidays allow employees to enjoy income replacement when observing religious holidays.

Another proactive measure for employers is to offer foods in company cafeterias or at company events that meet various religion-based dietary needs. Employees observing religious practices by abstaining from specific foods are likely to appreciate such consideration of their dietary restrictions. Furthermore, employees generally welcome the freedom to be able to wear or display religious symbols at work.

It is critically important to provide training to your supervisory and managerial team so they recognize religious accommodation requests and have a strategy for responding in a manner that is not construed as being insensitive or discriminatory in nature. Supervisory-level employees charged with enforcing the company’s policies with respect to dress code, work schedules, and break times must be cognizant that, on occasion, the organization will be obligated to make exceptions to these policies in order to effectively provide for religious variations.

Last year, individuals filed almost 4,000 EEOC charges against organizations across the county for religious-based discrimination claims. The key to remaining outside of that statistic is to ensure your management team is not discriminating against individuals based on closely held religious beliefs and offering reasonable workplace accommodations to those who request them based on religion.