Sometimes, an employee’s religious beliefs or practices can be in conflict with job requirements. Under federal and most states’ laws, employers cannot ignore the religious needs of employees but must work with employees to try to accommodate them.
Employers are familiar with “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). “Reasonable accommodations” for religious issues is somewhat different under the discrimination laws. Nonetheless, many religious beliefs and practices are capable of being accommodated and employers should fully understand their obligations.
An employer need only accommodate “sincerely held” religious beliefs and practices. The challenge, however, can be determining to what extent an employee’s religious objection to a particular work requirement is, in fact, “sincerely held.” One way to do that is to talk with the employee and find out what you can without pressing too hard on what may be private matters.
If it is a sincerely held religious belief or practice, employers must provide a reasonable accommodation. No accommodation is required, however, if it would impose an undue hardship. And again, undue hardship is a familiar term from the Americans with Disabilities Act but it is applied differently in the context of religious issues.
Reasonable accommodations can be straightforward. For example, an employee who is prohibited by religious practice from working on the Sabbath may be given an alternative schedule. And sometimes, voluntary shift switches between employees may solve the issue. Other times, the religious belief or practice may require an exception to a work rule or policy.
For example, an employer may have a dress code policy that prohibits visible tattoos at work. If an employee has a visible tattoo that appears to be a religious insignia, it would be appropriate to ask the employee whether he or she is permitted to cover the tattoo at work. In most cases, that will take care of it. But if the religious belief or practices prohibits covering the tattoo, the employer may need to allow an exception to the policy. If an exception is permitted, it does not need to be applied to other employees who have nonreligious tattoos and demand the policy exception for themselves.
Another example is with regard to prayer. If an employee’s religious practice requires time for prayer during the workday, employers should try to find an appropriate place to allow for prayers. That could be an office or conference room, or an otherwise separate area where the employees can pray in private. Most times, this sort of accommodation is easily made and other employees with offices may offer use of their offices for the few minutes needed.
Keep in mind that if you accommodate prayers at work as required by an employee’s religion, other employees may approach you for permission to hold other types of religiously associated meetings. For example, some churchgoing employees may ask to use a conference room for monthly meetings of church-related social or business group. Check with your legal counsel in the specific circumstance, but in most cases your accommodation to allow prayers that are required during the workday does not obligate you to open your facilities to all other religiously associated causes represented by your employees.
A religious belief or practice can sometimes come into conflict with safety requirements or regulations. If there is no accommodation that would address the safety concerns, the accommodation would not be reasonable because it causes an undue hardship.
In the context of accommodating religious beliefs and practices, undue hardship means the accommodation imposes an undue hardship on your organization’s legitimate business interests. The employer must be able to prove that any accommodation would require more than ordinary business costs, diminish efficiency in other jobs, impair workplace safety, infringe on the rights and benefits of other employees, cause other coworkers to carry the burden of the accommodated employee’s hazardous or burdensome work, or conflict with other laws or regulations.
For example, suppose an employee’s religion requires that he or she wear particular clothes that are considered hazardous if worn near moving equipment or machinery. Unless there is another type of clothing that would meet the employee’s religious needs, permitting the employee to work in those clothes may be an undue hardship because of legitimate safety rules or regulations.
Alternatively, what if a female employee’s religious belief or practice prohibited her from being alone in a room with males? Can this be accommodated? What if simply leaving open the door to the room would meet the employee’s religious needs? That may be the solution. But if not, or if the employee’s particular job required closed door, confidential discussions, the religious practice may pose an undue hardship.
Always consult with your human resources or legal department before talking with an employee about religious accommodation issues. Accommodations are usually handled easily but there are some significant mistakes you can make without intending that result.
Barrie Gross is former Vice President and Senior Corporate Counsel (Employment Law) for an international Fortune 1000 company and is a regular contributor to AllBusiness.com. She is the founder of Barrie Gross Consulting, a human resources training and consulting firm dedicated to assisting companies to manage and develop their human capital. Visit www.barriegrossconsulting.com to learn more about Barrie and the services BGC provides.
Note: The information here does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as legal advice. If you have a legal issue or wish to obtain legal advice, you should consult an attorney in your area concerning your particular situation and facts. Nothing presented on this site or in this article establishes or should be construed as establishing an attorney-client or confidential relationship between you and Barrie Gross. This article is provided only as general information, which may or may not reflect the most current legal developments or be complete.