As the American workforce diversifies, addressing religion in the workplace is becoming a more common issue confronting employers. Whether it’s dealing with harassment, preventing discrimination, or making accommodations, this is an increasingly complex area of employment law for companies – and can create litigation liability.
ExpressJet Airlines, for example, was sued in a Michigan court last month for terminating an accommodation agreement with a Muslim flight attendant that had allowed her to ask co-workers to handle customer requests for alcohol. A Florida staffing company was sued in July when one of the temporary kitchen employees it had placed with a Walt Disney World was fired for wearing dreadlocks, a symbol of his Rastafarian beliefs. In 2012, AutoZone was forced to pay $75,000 to settle an EEOC suit brought by an employee who, after converting to the Sikh religion, was repeatedly harassed by co-workers, managers, and customers.
Guidance from EEOC
Recognizing the complexity of the issue – and the liability employers face – the EEOC recently issued updated information to educate both employers and employees about their rights and responsibilities when it comes to religion in the workplace. It notes the prevailing federal law on this issue is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on religion in hiring, firing, and terms and conditions of employment. Title VII also stipulates that employers must provide reasonable accommodations to allow an employee to practice his or her religion, as long as it does not cause extreme hardship for the business. This can include making scheduling changes, reassigning duties, swapping roles, or lateral transfers.
Title VII has a very broad definition of “religion” and provides protection for the full spectrum of religious belief – from organized religion (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc…) to belief systems that are unusual, uncommon, novel, or not intuitive. Even atheism, for example, is protected by Title VII as a religious belief. For this reason, employers should not dismiss an employee’s religion because it seems to fall outside of what is “normally” considered religious belief.
As noted above, Title VII stipulates that employers must make “reasonable” accommodations for the religious beliefs of employees. This could include a request to change a schedule to attend a service or ceremony, a dress code exception to allow for a religious article of clothing, or an employee asking not to handle foods or beverages that violate their religious beliefs.
If an employer can make the accommodation without “undue hardship,” Title VII says they must. Anything beyond a very small financial cost to accommodate the employee would be considered an undue hardship. For example, if the employer were forced to hire another staff member to cover for the employee asking for the accommodation, that would be considered an undue hardship.
As with sexual harassment, bullying, etc…harassment against an employee because of their religion is prohibited by Title VII. This can include name-calling, intimidation, and threats. Managers can be liable for not preventing the behavior, as can the company itself. Employee handbooks and manuals should include specific language prohibiting religious harassment in the workplace.
Religious Expression in the Workplace
Employers must allow religious expression in the workplace under Title VII. The exception is if it interferes with the work of that employee or his or her colleagues. For example, if a worker is made uncomfortable by a colleague aggressively promoting their religion in the workplace, the employer can ask the proselytizing employee to stop.
Consistency, Documentation Key
Though the issue of religion in the workplace is complex, and often very situational, employers can help mitigate liability by ensuring they are consistent in how policies are enforced and accommodations made. As with any other workplace issue, documentation is key, and having manuals and procedures that clearly address issues of religious discrimination and harassment can go a long way to preventing problems.