Religious at Work: Discrimination or Diversity? 16:03, September 11, 2016

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Religious at Work: Discrimination or Diversity?

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You’d think that it would be easy to fire an employee who was loud, who was often absent from her desk, who made and received cell phone calls at work, whose boyfriend often visited her there, and who insisted on text messaging supervisors about her absences instead of calling.

And you’d probably be right. Unless a manager happened to believe (and mention to the employee’s grandmother) that the employee was fired in part for not attending devotional meetings that were occasionally held in the office after work. That remark was enough to persuade a Court that the employee should be able to take her case for religious discrimination to a jury.

Religion in the workplace can be a tricky issue. On one hand, employers can be sued for failing to accommodate an employee’s religious belief. On the other hand, employees can be fired for proselytizing at work.

Employees need to be aware of more than just the religious beliefs of employees. In 2014 the US Supreme Court decided in the Hobby Lobby case that the owners of a closely held corporation didn’t have to cover certain kinds of birth control for their employees. The Supreme Court said that it didn’t think Congress meant to “put family-run businesses to the choice of violating their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Although Justice Samuel Alito said that the Hobby Lobby decision concerned “only the contraception mandate” and did not “provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice,” it took only two years after the Hobby Lobby decision for a court to decide that religion can be a defense to a sex discrimination lawsuit.

Employers try to follow changes in the law so that they can steer clear of lawsuits. But even aside from litigation issues, employers also need to consider their employees’ wellbeing. A 2014 study showed that employees who are open about religion are happier. But what about the employees who find themselves avoiding their coworkers and ducking down stairwells in an effort to stave off conversion attempts?

What’s an employer to do?

According to Joyce Dubensky, the CEO of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, “Work is the place where people with extremely different beliefs interact on a regular basis. But where there’s more diversity . . . we can expect to find more conflict.”

In a 2008 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) study on Religion and Corporate Culture, organizations said that they made religious accommodations such as:

  • Taking different religious beliefs into account when planning holiday-related events (55%)
  • Allowing religious decorations in offices/cubicles (44%)
  • Allowing flexible scheduling to accommodate religious practices at work (43%)
  • Taking religious holidays into account when planning work-related events (40%)
  • Offering a variety of food at the organization and at events (27%)
  • Making dress code/personal appearance code exemptions and modifications (17%)
  • Creating designated areas for use in religious practices (15%)
  • Allowing onsite religion-based affinity groups (9%)

The Harvard Business Review has suggestions for what to do when work and religion conflict: companies should treat all employees equally, show employees that the company’s code of ethics is not something that only “lives on paper,” and review policies regarding religious practices.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) also provides guidance on how employers can balance the rights of employees who wish to express their religious beliefs with the rights of other employees to be free from religious harassment.

“I think finding the right balance and providing accommodations where necessary increases employee morale and productivity,” said Michelle Singletary, a member of SHRM’s Employee Relations Special Expertise Panel. “It also can help develop an appreciation for diversity.”

Employers and employees can work together to harness a workplace culture of purpose so that employees’ diversity is an asset rather than a distraction.

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Christine Day
Christine Day is a legal editor at EverFi. She writes about employment law issues and tracks case law and legislative and regulatory updates. Before joining EverFi she worked in legal publishing, researching and writing about tax law, business law, and employment law. She earned her JD from the University of San Diego Law School and her BA from the University of Southern California.

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