Religion in the Workplace: Religious Faith Accommodation and Your Job
Should Employees Simply Check Their Faith at the Office Door?
It's often said that there are three things you shouldn't discuss in the workplace: sex, politics, and religion. But when it comes to spirituality, it's not always as simple as agreeing to avoid the topic. That's because faith can often affect employees on the job in unexpected ways.
What Would You Do?
Put yourself in the place of the following employees. What would you do? Could you check your faith at the office door? Could you find a way to honor both your job duties and your religious beliefs?
- You're a server at a popular chain restaurant. Several times daily, wait staff must gather to clap and sing "Happy Birthday!" to customers who are there to celebrate. However, as a Jehovah's Witness, you object to the observance of birthdays.
- You're a manager at Walmart and are a practicing Mormon. Your work schedule frequently conflicts with the day of your Sabbath, Sunday.1
- You're a cashier at a grocery store and are Muslim. The pork and alcohol products that customers bring through your checkout lane violate your deeply held religious beliefs.2
- You're a hospital employee who is an evangelical Christian. Your church requires that you spread the good word to others. You proselytize to co-workers, patients, and their families, offer to pray with them, and unsolicited, you email fellow employees Bible passages. Because of complaints, the hospital has requested that you stop.3,4
- You're an engineer and a member of the Rastafarian sect. As such, you don an untrimmed beard and unkempt dreadlocks as a part of your belief system. Your manager has repeatedly reminded you to adopt a more clean-cut appearance or face discipline, up to and including discharge of employment.5
If You Were the Employer
If you were the EMPLOYER, how would you respond to such conflicts between an employee's job and religion?
Sound Far-Fetched? Think Again
Although these situations might sound improbable, consider this: they are based on actual court cases as well as published reports of employee religious conflicts in the workplace.
As a former HR investigator, I've reviewed a variety of employee complaints for two Fortune 500 companies. I've found that disagreements involving employee religion can be among the most contentious. People can truly dig their heels in and refuse to see other perspectives. Here's what you need to know about spirituality at work.
Are Dreadlocks an Issue of Religion vs. Company Image?
Changing Religious Patterns in the United States
A gulf seems to be forming between those who self-identify as religious and those who do not, and this widening difference has implications for the American workplace.
The "Nones" Are a Sizeable Minority
In the 1950s, the Gallup survey organization found that 100% of its respondents claimed a religious identity, even if they had not been to church for many years. People retained the religious identity they had grown up with.
Now, however, a sizable minority of the population has loosened its bonds with religion. One in five Americans, for example, reports no religious preference.6 They are referred to as the "Nones" because that's how they respond to the religion question on surveys. (Note, however, that failure to declare a preference does not necessarily equal "atheist.")
Their numbers are particularly concentrated among young adults, aged 18-29. Males, Asian Americans, and political independents are also more likely to describe themselves as affiliated with no specific religion.
America: Christian at the Core but Diversifying
Contrasted with this "unchurched" minority are those nearly 7 in 10 Americans who describe themselves as "moderately" or "very" religious.7 Religiosity is generally higher among women, African Americans, older people, Southerners, and self-labeled political conservatives.
Conflict and Accommodation
In the context of employment, changing patterns mean that there is ample opportunity for conflict as diversity continues to grow.
About 77% of the population of the United States identifies themselves as Christian. However, there is remarkable internal diversity among even individual Christian denominations. Additionally, there are small percentages of adherents to Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religions.
Religion's Impacts on the Workplace
Religion impacts not just employee values but also lifestyles. Such differences can put employees at odds with one another. It can also create conflict regarding their assigned job duties, dress codes, scheduling, and other workplace issues as people struggle to honor their commitment to their faith.
Religion in the Workplace as Diverse as Employees Themselves
Examples of How Religion May Impact the Workplace
Religiously Influenced Need or Practice
Examples of Potential Conflicts
grooming (e.g., beards, long hair)
Wearing a beard can impede fit of a respirator and thereby create a safety risk for some jobs.
apparel (e.g., hijabs, turbans, kippahs, religious jewelry and pins)
If a hat is required as part of a job uniform, religious headwear may interfere. (Contrast the necessity of a hard hat for safety reasons with a merely decorative uniform cap.)
diet (e.g., forbidden foods, fasting)
Official company functions might not offer halal, kosher, or vegetarian options. Or, coworkers may be fasting, and you're being insensitive eating lunch at your desk where it can waft.
proselytizing (e.g., one-on-one conversations, religious email signature lines)
Harassment concerns. One employee's need to proselytize may conflict with another employee's desire not to hear the message. Customers may confuse the employee's personal position on religion from the company's.
observance of personal celebrations like birthdays
Participating in office birthday celebrations may be against some workers' religions.
Employees may be scheduled to work on their Sabbath or an important religious holiday.
contact with certain products
Employees may be asked to engage in job duties that directly contradict their religion, such as a Mormon waitress serving alcohol, a Catholic pharmacist dispensing the morning after pill, or a Muslim cashier ringing up pork products.
tattoos and piercings
Employees may be asked to cover tattoos or remove piercings. However, these have a prominent role in some religions and may be on the face.
space to pray
Some religions require prayer or meditation at specific time intervals. A clean space as well as uninterrupted time to pray may be needed.
decoration and display of personal workspace
Some religious scriptures or symbols could have the capacity to distract, shock, or offend coworkers or customers (e.g., anti-gay or anti-abortion rhetoric or images).
Some religions avoid non-essential physical contact with the opposite sex (e.g., shaking hands).
Federal Protection From Religious Discrimination in Employment
Today's American workers can go to work wearing a kippah or ashes from their Ash Wednesday service with less fear of employment discrimination, thanks to the protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII").
Under this federal law, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees on account of their religion. The law extends to recruitment, hiring, training, pay, discipline, firing, and other terms and conditions of employment.
It applies to all private employers, state and local governments, and educational institutions employing 15 or more individuals. State and local laws may provide additional protections.
Religion Is Broadly Defined
Under Title VII, religion is broadly defined as a "sincerely held" system of beliefs, typically involving life, purpose, death, and moral balance in the universe.8
Protections of Title VII do not simply extend to established religions like Judaism or Mormonism. An employee's religion doesn't have to be logical, understandable, consistent, or anything you've ever heard of before.
Rather than belonging to a group, the employee can be the only believer of his or her kind. The religion doesn't even need to involve belief in a supreme being (e.g., Scientology). Title VII even protects employees who opt to have no religion.9
Title VII, however, does not shield employees from discrimination on the basis of mere personal preferences or their social, political or economic philosophies. For example, courts have determined that the Ku Klux Klan is a political and social group rather than a religion, thus preventing a worker who was fired for participating in a pro-Hitler rally from seeking redress as a victim of religious discrimination. (Nice try though, fella!)
Religious Discrimination and Harassment
Title VII makes religious discrimination and harassment illegal, and it compels employers to take steps to prevent them.
Religious discrimination refers to treating an individual or a group differently on the basis of religion. For example, a supervisor may only hire and promote only members of his own religious sect, although people of other religions happen to be more objectively qualified.
Religious harassment refers to unwelcome conduct that is based on one's faith. For example, a Mormon is taunted daily by his supervisor and coworkers about various aspects of his faith, including temple undergarments, avoiding alcohol and caffeine. He is also falsely teased as being polygamist to the point he wants to quit his job.
Harassment is not easy to prove, as the bar has been set pretty high. Isolated utterances and run-of-the mill teasing that are not egregious are often deemed merely disrespectful and inappropriate. That doesn't mean that you have to tolerate crude comments and teasing.
If you are faced with such behavior, use a phrase such as these to communicate that the behavior is unwelcome:
- "Stop it. You're offending me."
- "You're insulting me. Your behavior is inappropriate."
- "You're being disrespectful to me and my faith. Stop right now."
Regardless of whether you believe the offensive conduct rises to the level of harassment, consider reporting it to the company. The company cannot correct problems it isn't aware of.
Title VII also requires covered employers to provide a reasonable accommodation when an applicant or employee experiences conflict between work and faith-based obligations—as long as doing so would not present undue hardship upon the employer. (Note that public sector employees may be able to additionally seek an accommodation under the First Amendment and applicable state laws.)
Reasonable accommodation can be simple and/or creative solutions that eliminate the work/religion conflict without creating undue hardship. Examples depend on the particular situation and might include:
- flexible/adjusted schedules
- use of floating holidays
- swapping shifts or specific job duties with other workers
- modifying a work uniform
- job reassignment
- changes to policies and practices or
- designating a private location for prayer/meditation.
When there is a conflict between job and religion, an employee should be clear in his or her request for an accommodation, explaining that the nature of the conflict is religious in nature (rather than simply "my beliefs," for example). An interactive process between the employee and employer can often achieve a practical solution for both parties.
Wiccans, Not Satanists
Not Everyone Will Understand Your Religious Choices
Tips on Requesting a Religious Accommodation
If your religious beliefs conflict with your employment obligations, here are pointers to help you request an accommodation:
- Read your company's relevant policies, including those on equal employment opportunity, discrimination and harassment, non-solicitation, safety, dress code, and employee conduct.
- Consult your church leaders for examples of how others have constructively solved similar work/religion conflicts. Also, consider examples of how your employer has previously accommodated others.
- Contact your manager, union representative, or HR department to make your employer aware of the conflict. Use a problem-solving demeanor to explicitly describe the situation. Also, suggest your desired solution.
- Alert the company as soon as you become aware of the conflict.
- Be willing to provide some basic education and context for your religious need (e.g., when and how you need to pray as a Muslim). You do not, however, have to provide documentation from church officials or others regarding the legitimacy of your request.
- Referencing your rights under federal or state law will make your employer feel defensive. You may also want to refer to your religion as your "faith" or "spirituality" for similar reasons.
- Approach the problem from a positive, interactive angle by aiming to connect with the person you're talking to on a human level. They probably have a religion, too, even if it's not the same as yours. Try to find a way to explain the solution as a benefit for the company, not simply you.
- Be flexible and open to alternatives. Be sensitive to the business impact that various solutions have on productivity, cost, other employees, and the business. Understand that the company does not have to provide you the specific accommodation you seek -- simply one that does not create an undue hardship if one is available.
- If the accommodation involves anything more than minor expense, the company does not have to provide it. This is where that positive, constructive problem-solving attitude could benefit you the most.
- If you're granted an accommodation, request periodic check-ins with your employer to ensure that the accommodation is working well for both sides. As part of an ongoing conversation with your employer, report back on how the accommodation is working for you. Ask how the accommodation is working for the company. Make adjustments as needed.
- Thank the company for doing the right thing!
Is Prayer at Work a Reasonable Request for Accommodation?
Your Chance to Weigh In
In the Comments Section below, tell us about your experiences with religion and the workplace, either negative or positive.
1 Hooda, S. (2012, June 6). Walmart Threatened To Fire Mormon Worker For Observing Sabbath. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/05/walmart-threatened-to-fire-mormon-worker-observing-sabbath_n_1572088.html.
2 Associated Press (2007, March 17). Some Target Stores Change Duties for Muslim Cashiers Who Object to Ringing Up Pork. Retrieved from http://www.foxnews.com/story/2007/03/17/some-target-stores-change-duties-for-muslim-cashiers-who-object-to-ringing-up/.
3HR.com. (2004, February 16). Retrieved April 23, 2014, from .
4Robinson & Cole LLP (2005). Labor, Employment & Benefits. Retrieved April 23, 2014, from http://www.rc.com/publications/upload/1525.pdf.
5Crozier-Fitzgerald, F. (2010, November 23). Rastafarian religious discrimination. Retrieved from http://archives.jrn.columbia.edu/2010-2011/thenewyorkworld.com/2010/11/23/rastafarian-religious-discrimination/index.html.
6Gallup Politics (2013, January 10). In U.S., Rise in Religious "Nones" Slows in 2012. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/159785/rise-religious-nones-slows-2012.aspx.
7Newport, F. (2012, December 4). Seven in 10 Americans Are Very or Moderately Religious. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/159050/seven-americans-moderately-religious.aspx.
8U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2009, November 21). Federal Laws Prohibiting Job Discrimination: Questions AndAnswers. Retrieved April 23, 2014, from http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/qanda.html.
9Anti-Defamation League (2012). Religious Accommodation in the Workplace. Retrieved April 23, 2014, from http://www.adl.org/assets/pdf/civil-rights/religiousfreedom/religfreeres/ReligAccommodWPlace-docx.pdf.
10U.S. Department of Labor (n.d.). Religious Discrimination and Accommodation. Retrieved April 24, 2014, from http://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/crc/2011-religious-discrimination-and-accommodation.htm.
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