Friday, April 3, 2015

Accommodating Religion in the Workplace

This weekend, Easter and Passover will bring many families together for religious celebrations, and that got us thinking about religious accommodations in the workplace.

Religious discrimination and accommodation cases can sometimes result in headlines and media scrutiny. There’s the Onionhead case, for example, in which an employer required employee participation in various religious practices, including forcing them to profess their love to a manager. There’s the Mark of the Beast case, in which a mining company refused to accommodate a worker who felt that the company’s hand-scanning time clock system forced him to violate religious tenets.  And of course we’re waiting with interest for the U.S. Supreme Court’s to decide EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch, in which the retailer refused to hire a woman who wore a hijab to her interview.

While the facts of cases like these can lead to news reports and blog posts, day-to-day requests for religious accommodation are often of high importance to employees and tricky for employers.  Requests for prayer time and space, time off for religious holidays that fall during the middle of the work week, adjustments to company dress codes, or expanded cafeteria options are common for many employers.  Here are some suggested best practices to follow when an employee makes a request for an accommodation for his or her religious beliefs: 

Don’t question whether the employee is a true believer.   Religious accommodation law specifies that the existence of genuine belief is a factor in determining whether an employer is required to accommodate an employee’s religion.  Sometimes, however, questioning an employee to determine the veracity of his or her belief system can get an employer in trouble. It’s generally wise to assume that the employee’s belief – even in nontraditional religions like the Church of Body Modification – is genuine, absent strong evidence to the contrary. 

Carefully consider whether the accommodation can be made.  As with reasonable accommodations for disabilities, there is an undue hardship exception for religious accommodations.  As in disability discrimination cases, however, it can be difficult for an employer to establish that an accommodation will actually result in an undue hardship. While an employer may not be required to make the exact accommodation an employee requests, making reasonable adjustments to allow an employee to practice his or her religion is required.  More likely than not, there is a way to arrange an accommodation. 

If you’ve made accommodations in other situations, plan on making accommodations for religion-based requests.  In the Mark of the Beast case, whether or not the employee actually believed that a machine scanning her hand violated his religion was not the focus for the EEOC.  The mining company regularly accommodated others, including employees who had lost fingers.  The EEOC argued that because the company had changed its practices for others, it could do so for this particular employee in response to his religion-based concerns. Similarly, if an employer allows employees time off during a busy season for non-religious reasons, it will likely be required to allow time off in response to a religion-based request. 

When in doubt, ask for help. The EEOC has published many guides for employers who wrestle with reasonable accommodation issues.  Some, including the Frequently Asked Questions, have examples that may be helpful. Your local association of human resources professionals and your employment lawyer are also good resources.

Posted by Kate Bischoff