With Good Friday and Easter close Christianity is in the news. Of course having a new Pope selected during the Lenten season has actually had it in the news in a prominent way. To me however, it raises the bigger question of religious discrimination. If you have an employee who wants Good Friday off or Easter for that matter what must you be aware of? Here are three things that may lead to a religious discrimination charge.
No small issue
Religious discrimination is not the biggest area of EEO charges. It has, however, risen as an area of charges by over 48% in the last decade. In the last three years alone $31 million has been paid out to settle charges. This is not an insignificant amount of money. The EEOC provides guidance on dealing with religious discrimination here and here.
So what are the three things you cannot do when it comes to religion in the workplace?
Do not discriminate
The law forbids discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment. Discrimination in this case includes harassment and segregation. Although some teasing or joking could occur (the old joke of a minister, a priest and a rabbi are…) if the harassment is so pervasive, severe or offensive that it creates a hostile work environment then it becomes illegal.
Isolating someone from either other employees or from the public for reasons of religion, such as clothing or grooming practices, is also prohibited by Title VII. Just because you think you may have a negative customer reaction is discrimination.
Being unwilling to accommodate
You must be willing to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs to the greatest extent possible as long as it does not cause undue hardship to the company. According to the EEOC “An accommodation may cause undue hardship if it is costly, compromises workplace safety, decreases workplace efficiency, infringes on the rights of other employees, or requires other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.” To be able to claim this you need to have documented business justification and must work with the employee (or applicant) to the greatest extent possible, otherwise you run the risk of lawsuit. By the way, the accommodations are not just holidays off, but in dress and grooming standards as well.
Forcing employees to abide by your religious beliefs
Here in the Southeast where I live, there are a number of companies that tout themselves as being Christian based companies. They are quite open about their religiousness and there is nothing wrong with that. According to attorney Tim Eavenson, it is quite alright for a company to profess their religion, as long as they do it externally. They can put it in their marketing material, what they cannot do is put it in their employment material. According to the EEOC “An employee cannot be forced to participate (or not participate) in a religious activity as a condition of employment.” The only exception to considering religion in employment is when a religious institution or religious based school is hiring someone to teach the religion. It is ok to refuse to hire a non-Christian if the job is to teach Christianity, it is not ok if they are being hired to teach English or Math.
In sum, to stay out of trouble:
- Don’t discriminate
- Be willing to accommodate
- Don’t force someone to abide by your religious beliefs
This will keep you out of most of your trouble.