The Delicate Issue of Religion in the Workplace

8 minutes read

Easter, Passover, Ramadan…with so many religious holidays upon us, Spring is an excellent time for employers to review the way they manage religion in the workplace.

While a small group faith-focused companies, like Hobby Lobby and Chick-Fil-A, proudly place religion at the heart of their business, most employers are far more cautious in how they address these particularly-sensitive labor laws.

After all, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 not only prohibits employers from discriminating against employees because of their religion, but requires them to “reasonably accommodate” employees’ religious beliefs, unless doing so would impose undue hardship on the business.

The challenge for employers arises from defining where “reasonable accommodations” begin and end—and often, their employees hold a different view.

In fiscal year 2017, 3,416 charges of religious discrimination were filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). While they make up just 4.1% of the 84,254 discrimination charges filed during that period, the number has more than doubled over the last 20 years.

Furthermore, when workplace-related religious discrimination cases come before the courts, rulings vary widely, leaving employers unsure how to proceed. But as complex as the issue is—and as surprising as some of the court cases may be—there are common sense guidelines employers can follow to maintain compliance.

Religion is in the Eye of the Beholder

No matter how unusual or extreme, employers should avoid judging their workers’ religious beliefs. Case in point: in 2018, the Supreme Court ended a seven-year discrimination lawsuit filed by the EEOC on behalf of Beverly Butcher, a West Virginia coal miner employed by Consol Energy.

Butcher, an Evangelical Christian, refused to clock in and out of work using Consol’s biometric time clock. Why: he believed the hand scanner would leave him with the “Mark of the Beast” (from the Bible’s Book of Revelation), which would bar him from Heaven.

A federal jury found Consol guilty of religious discrimination, awarding Butcher nearly $600,000. Consol’s appeal was turned down by the appeals court. The company then requested review by the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court also declined the case.  

As such, the judgement stands against Consol—and serves as a lesson to employers. Take your employees’ religious beliefs seriously, no matter how you feel about them.

Tips for Staying on the Straight and Narrow

According to workplace attorneys, the first step to avoiding religious discrimination issues is to encourage diversity, promote tolerance and establish nondenominational values. They suggest that employers educate employees on their discrimination policies and train managers and HR staff how to handle such labor law situations correctly. 

In addition, the EEOC offers specific practices for eliminating religious discrimination, including:

To avoid disparate treatment of employees:

  • Establish written criteria for evaluating job candidates and apply it consistently.
  • Ask all job applicants in a particular job category the same questions.
  • Carefully document the business reasons for taking disciplinary or performance-related actions and share these with employees.
  • Encourage less-experienced managers to consult with HR when addressing tricky issues.

To prevent religious harassment:

  • Develop and communicate an anti-harassment policy that explains what is prohibited, describes reporting procedures, and assures protection from retaliation.
  • Make sure your policy specifies processes for filing complaints, conducting impartial investigations and taking corrective action.
  • Allow religious expression to the same extent you allow other types of personal expression.
  • Train managers to intervene when made aware of problematic conduct, before it rises to the level of a formal complaint.

To arrange reasonable accommodations:

  • Inform employees that you will make reasonable efforts to accommodate their religious practices.
  • Train managers how to recognize these requests.
  • Develop procedures for processing each request individually.
  • Confer with employees as needed to obtain more information about their religious needs and your options.
  • If you deny an employee’s preferred accommodation, explain why. (Remember, under EEOC labor laws, you’re not required to comply.)
  • Work with employees to adjust their work schedule to accommodate religious practices.
  • Consider adopting flexible leave and scheduling policies that allow employees to meet religious needs, such as floating holidays.
  • Encourage employees to swap schedules to avoid conflicts.
  • Consider lateral transfers when no other accommodation can be made without creating undue hardship.
  • Don’t assume employees wouldn’t take a lower-paying position that would allow them to practice their beliefs—make the offer and let them decide.
  • Make efforts to accommodate an employee’s desire to wear religious garb, such as a yarmulke or hijab.
  • Try to be flexible and creative regarding work schedules and duties.

Employers have to comply with many, many labor laws, and some are trickier than others. EPAY’s HR and payroll solution is designed to help employers remain compliant, even with a hard-to-manage hourly workforce. Watch our quick video—we’ll make you a believer.

Filed Under: Compliance

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