Employee Relations: Accommodating Religion In The Workplace

Employee Relations: Accommodating Religion In The Workplace

Making accommodations for an employee’s religious beliefs is important when it comes to building an atmosphere where everyone feels supported and respected. More so, companies should devote care and energy to address religious requests because of “undue hardship.”

What Is Undue Hardship?

The de minimis standard in undue hardship refers to the legal requirement that must be considered as an employee’s religious accommodation request is made. As in all aspects of employee relations, employers can go beyond the requirements of the law, and should be flexible in evaluating whether or not an accommodation is feasible for their company.

Providing Reasonable Accommodation of Religious Beliefs and Practices

To support employees’ religious beliefs and practices, accommodations to support them should be made using these recommended guidelines:

  • Train managers and supervisors on how to recognize and respond to religious accommodation requests from employees.
  • Develop internal procedures for processing religious accommodation requests.
  • Assess each request individually, avoiding assumptions or stereotypes about what constitutes a religious belief or practice or what type of accommodation is appropriate.
  • Meet with the employee requesting religious accommodation to define how much (if any) information needs to be provided to other employees.
  • Train managers and supervisors to consider alternative available accommodations if the particular accommodation requested would pose an undue hardship.
  • Finally, when a religious accommodation cannot be promptly implemented, consider offering alternative temporary options, while a permanent solution is explored.

Seniority Systems and Collective-Bargaining Agreements

Check your seniority system and/or collective-bargaining agreements to ensure that a religious accommodation will not conflict with the terms or infringe on other employees’ legitimate expectations.

Employers should not automatically reject a request for religious accommodation just because the accommodation will interfere with the existing seniority system or terms of a collective-bargaining agreement. If the requested accommodation would violate the collective-bargaining agreement or seniority system, confer with the employee to determine if an alternative accommodation is available.

Finally, communicate to leadership any accommodation agreements made that may require making exceptions to policies or procedures that are not part of a collective-bargaining agreement or seniority system.

Schedule Changes, Substitutions Or Swaps

An area where undue hardship rules may apply could be in a request for a schedule change due to religious beliefs. Employers should work with employees who would like to adjust their work schedules for this purpose.

One way to eliminate the possibility of religious discrimination where scheduling is concerned is to adopt flexible leave, policies and procedures. This allows employees to meet religious and other personal needs and can reduce individual requests for exceptions.

For example, some employers have policies allowing alternative work schedules and/or a certain number of “floating” holidays for each employee. These policies may not cover everything, and some individual requests may still be needed, but the number of individual accommodations may be greatly reduced.

An employer may also simplify and encourage voluntary substitutions and swaps between employees with substantially similar qualifications. This will also promote an atmosphere in which substitutes are seen as a positive. Providing a central file, bulletin board, group email or other means to help employees resolve a scheduling issue will further facilitate this.

Change of Job Assignments and Lateral Transfers

Change in job assignments and lateral transfers may be viable options for a reasonable religious accommodation. Employers should consider a lateral transfer when no accommodation that would keep the employee in his or her position is possible without undue hardship.

However, an employer should only resort to transfer, whether lateral or otherwise, after fully exploring accommodations that would permit the employee to remain in his position.

When a lateral transfer is unavailable, do not assume that an employee would not be interested in a lower-paying position. If no transfer opportunity is available within the employee’s current job level, offer the lower available position and let the employee decide whether or not to take it.

Balancing Religious Expression

Train managers to gauge the actual disruption posed by religious expression in the workplace, rather than merely speculating that disruption may result. Managers should be empowered to identify alternative accommodations that might be offered to avoid actual disruption. An example would be to designate an unused or private location in the workplace where a prayer session or a Bible study meeting can occur.

In any anti-harassment training provided to managers and employees, include information regarding religious expression and the need for all employees to be sensitive to the beliefs or non-beliefs of others.

Addressing these topics ensures that your workplace will be a place where everyone feels valued, and therefore comfortable performing their job to the best of their ability. You’ll also be positioning your company for less risk when it comes to religious discrimination.

Related Resources