Nagging Questions: Religion in the Workplace

Next week is a sacred time for the country’s two largest religions. More than 231 million Americans will commemorate Passover or Easter. That’s more than 100 million employees, and more than 100 million opportunities for manager missteps.

It’s imperative to understand how to address religion in a respectful, compliant way. Sensitivities can exist even with day-to-day issues like PTO and timekeeping. (Just ask Consol Energy, which was ordered by a jury to pay more than $600,000 in damages to an employee who objected to clocking in with a biometric hand scanner. He cited religious grounds; he feared it was akin to the “mark of the beast” used by the Antichrist. The employer denied his request for an alternative. He sued and won.)

As the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on religion. This includes “refusing to accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs or practices unless the accommodation would impose an undue hardship.”

What does that mean for employers? A few of our frequently asked questions:

Am I required to grant all religious-related vacation requests?

Accommodation requests often relate to work schedules, dress and grooming, or religious expression in the workplace. If it would not pose an undue hardship (more below), the employer must grant the accommodation.

Can I ask if the time-off request is related to a religious observance?

You can, though it’s best to avoid asking employees about their specific religion. Often, an employee will disclose the reason for the request.

We have an employee who has asked for time off for a religious holiday, but he does not have enough vacation days to cover it. Do we have to let him have the day off?

Yes, unless it creates undue hardship. And undue hardship is a difficult one to assess – judging by reasonableness standards. Saying no means the business will truly suffer if the time off is granted, and you may have to prove that if a contest is made out of it. 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.

How can I legally verify that someone actually practices the religion they claim?

This is a really difficult one because religion is covered under Title VII. Generally, assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief. A religious belief or practice can be unique to the individual; just because a practice deviates from commonly followed religious beliefs does not make it insincere. However, if you have objective factors that call into question an employee’s sincerity (inconsistent behavior, timing of the request, similar past requests made for secular reasons), seek professional help to discuss how to address your concerns.

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