Religion in the Workplace

Religion in the Workplace

Employee in religious garbOne of our job seekers recently commented that she felt that she was having difficulty obtaining employment due to the fact that her Muslim religion required her to wear a hijab (head scarf).

One of our employers asked us if he could put information about his religious values in his employee handbook.

A business owner we know told us that he started his employees’ day with prayer, and asked us if we thought that was okay.

Religion is an important part of many people’s daily lives.  It’s not always easy to leave our religious beliefs at the workplace door, but when religion and work mix, there can be serious legal consequences for employers.

Laws about religion in the workplace:

Federal law, specifically Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals because of their religious beliefs.  Employees cannot be forced to participate, or not participate, in a religious activity as a condition of employment.

It violates Title VII for an employer to ask his employees to start their day with prayer — and yet, employers must reasonably accommodate their employees’ own religious practices, unless doing so would impose undue hardship on the employer’s business interests.

When must employers accommodate employees’ religious needs?

If accommodating an employee’s need for a special schedule impacts the employer’s efficiency or forces co-workers to shoulder more than their fair share of work, an employer would have legitimate cause to refuse the accommodation.

However, the EEOC requires employers to make a reasonable effort to accommodate an employee before the employer can justifiably and legally refuse to furnish them with changes.

For instance, if an employee needed Good Friday off, an employer might put out an email asking for another staff member to volunteer to switch shifts, or allow the employee to work four 10 hour days in order to have Friday off.

Religious attire in the workplace:

Legally, unless it imposes undue hardship on a business, an employer is required to accommodate more than just schedule changes — employers must permit their employees to engage in religious expression in other areas as well.  Thus, an employee has the right to wear religious clothing, such as a hijab.

As is always the case, however, with subjects like religious freedom, there is a fine balance between the employer’s rights and the employee’s.  For instance, an employer would have the right to refuse to allow an employee who works in a production environment around heavy machinery to wear religious garb — such as a long robe — which could pose a safety hazard.

A real-world example: 

A recent high profile case at Disney has put a public spotlight on the issue of religious attire in the workplace.  Many Disneyland employees are required to wear theme-based costumes to work.  A Muslim employee, who wanted to wear her hijab with her costume, claims Disney’s accommodations either made fun of her religion by making her look ridiculous, or forced her to work out of sight of the public.

She quit and is suing Disney.  Further, she claims employees made fun of her, resulting in harassment, and that she lost a subsequent job when the next employer learned she was suing her former employer, Disney.

Employers must protect the religious rights of their entire staff, not just individual employees.

To add to the balancing act, employers must protect the religious rights and needs of their staff as a whole, and not just those of individual employees.

A real-world example: 

In one case, a court found that an employee did not have the right to wear an anti-abortion button whenever she left her cubicle, as its depiction of an aborted fetus upset her co-workers.

In an effort to respect both her right to religious expression as well as her co-workers’, the employer allowed the employee to continue to wear the button whenever she left her cubicle, but only under the cover of a coat or sweater.

The courts found this to be an acceptable method of accommodating the employee’s religious principles.  Other court cases have restricted employee’s religious expression on the job when that expression has caused disruption amongst other employees.

Employers must prevent religious harassment of their employees:

In a similar vein, employers are required to take steps to prevent religious harassment of their employees.

Harassment can come in a variety of forms, be it jokes, slurs, insults, or even offensive buttons.  Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish where one person’s personal right to religious expression ends and harassment begins.

Proselytizing falls into this troublesome grey area.  When an employee is determined to preach their religion to their co-workers, the EEOC has unfortunately not given us firm guidelines to follow.  As employers, we must use our own best judgment.

How to handle proselytizing in the workplace:

You cannot forbid employees from discussing their religion, or you will violate Title VII.  And yet, if employees complain about a co-worker spreading their religion in the workplace, it is your responsibility as an employer to handle the problem.

You will want to deal with the issue carefully, documenting each complaint, and noting the severity and frequency of the behavior.  If the conduct is interfering with work performance, or is threatening or humiliating in any way, you will want to take action.  Most importantly, under no circumstance should the employer be the one doing the proselytizing!

What are an employer’s rights to religious expression?

With so many toes so easily stepped on, what are an employer’s rights to religious expression?  As human beings, they are as completely entitled to religious freedoms as everyone else.  As employers, however, those rights are curbed by responsibilities and obligations.

In some cases, such as requiring employees to begin each day with prayer, an employer’s actions can be outright illegal; in other instances, such as including a statement about the employer’s religious beliefs in the employee handbook, it’s simply extremely ill-advised.

A better route is to emphasize corporate values, such as integrity, honesty, respect for others, rather than those values’ religious origins.

How to protect your business against religious discrimination claims:

As employers, we want to protect ourselves against discrimination claims, and to maintain a productive, conflict-free workplace. Here are a few tips:

  • A quick review of your internal policies can help protect your business.
  • In your holiday and time off policies, you might consider how you will accommodate religious holidays that are not company holidays.
  • Your dress code should be flexible enough to accommodate employees’ religious practice.
  • When you plan company events or provide food for your employees, be mindful of any unique religious or ethical needs they might have.
  • If you decorate for holidays, be sure you are accommodating your diverse workforce and allowing your employees to have input.

Remember, you cannot ask questions about an employee’s religion in the interview process, so it is very important that you be sure that an employee has an effective means of communicating their needs to you!

The wrap-up:

Don’t assume that everyone you hire shares your beliefs, as we live in a diverse world.  As difficult a balancing act as it may sometimes be, by honoring their legal and ethical obligations to respect and protect their employees’ religious beliefs, employers create a smoothly-running, positive, productive workplace, which is beneficial to all.

Originally published in the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal.

Email Julie Tappero

Find Julie Tappero on LinkedIn