Handling Employee Requests for Religious Accomodations

Whether you’re running a large corporation or a small business, it can be challenging to properly reply to employee requests for religious accommodations. However, if you’ll listen carefully to what’s being asked and thoughtfully weigh all your options, you should be able to respond appropriately. As the employer, it’s your duty to strike the proper balance between honoring a legitimate request and prioritizing the most crucial needs of your business.

Here’s a brief overview of the key topics involved with honoring religion rights in the workplace after receiving employee accommodation requests.

Employment discrimination based on religion is forbidden by law

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based solely on religion. Upon first learning about this statute, most employers ask how the term “religion” is defined — and exactly when they must fully abide by this law. Stated succinctly, employers should try to make reasonable accommodations based on religious beliefs (and practices) whenever doing so will not place an “undue burden” on their businesses.

How does the EEOC define “religion?”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission provides a very broad definition of “religion” that is not limited to just well-known faith groups such as Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus. The EEOC states that the employee’s beliefs can be new or uncommon – and separate from those espoused by any formal group or sect. The practice the employee wants to honor must be sincerely held and of a clear, religious nature – as opposed to a mere political, social or economic philosophy.

What are some of the most common types of requested religious accommodations?

  • Permission to attend special worship services during normal work hours;
  • A request by a female employee to wear a headscarf or “hijab” at work;
  • Permission for a male employee to wear his hair long – in keeping with religious beliefs. Some Jewish men also ask to wear “skull caps” or yarmulkes on special religious days;
  • Time off on specific “holy days” – or a day like Saturday or Sunday, in keeping with faith practices;
  • A flexible work schedule that allows for “breaks” during which specific types of prayers may be said;
  • A request to be exempted from specific job tasks, such as dispensing birth control pills or handling specific duties that help advance war efforts. (Members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other faith communities might make these types of requests);

While this list is not intended to be exhaustive, it should provide you with a better understanding of the types of accommodations employees may request.

How can employers determine if a request will cause an “undue hardship”?

After making sure you understand the specific nature of each request, you’ll have to decide if your business can still function smoothly if you grant the accommodation. Here are some questions you should be sure to ask yourself.

  • Will making the accommodation prove unduly expensive? For example, what should you do if an employee asks to take off work to attend a Good Friday church service? Will saying “Yes” leave a key job or position uncovered in the person’s absence? Do you have any other employees willing to cover for the individual needing to leave? If no one volunteers to help, can you afford to pay any overtime to a qualified employee (or an outside temp) to cover the position?
  • Is the request one that might violate your company’s legitimate health or safety rules? If so, can you find another way to work out the situation? For example, if a young man wants to wear his hair long in keeping with his stated religious beliefs – can you simply let him wear his hair tied in a ponytail during work hours — or keep it hidden under a work hat that you provide or consider acceptable?
  • Will it prove to be too disruptive to your regular office routine? Should you allow an atheist (or employees of different faiths) to wait and enter meetings normally started with Christian prayers after those prayers have concluded? It might be simpler to just pray with those of like mind at a different time on certain days. That way, you can probably avoid ostracizing those who have said that they don’t wish to take part in your specific prayer practices.
  • Is there a danger that granting one employee’s request to honor faith practices will lead to too many other, similar requests? The EEOC urges employers to consider all requests made very seriously — and to try and accommodate them whenever it’s reasonable. Few employees are likely to abuse this type of request. However, you might consider placing a statement in your employee handbook that all such requests must be made on a sincere basis — and that they’ll probably be granted if they don’t cause any great disruption in the company’s normal workflow – or provision of critical customer services.

All employers, managers and supervisors must avoid all forms of workplace retaliation

Unfortunately, there will always be a few biased supervisors or managers who may resent having to make any religious accommodations. Therefore, you must make sure that once any requests have been granted – the employees are not “punished” in any way.

For example, you cannot force all employees requesting permission to wear special religious clothing, hats or scarves to sit in a back office together where they’ll be less visible. That could be viewed as “retaliation” and make your company vulnerable to a lawsuit based on discrimination.

Conclusion

Be sure to treat every employee’s request for a religious accommodation with sincere respect. And always keep detailed notes in each employee’s file as to why you did or did not grant a request in case there are any later lawsuits. (For example, if you decide a request will prove to be too costly or place an “undue burden” on your business – make sure you can prove that with adequate facts and figures.)

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys with any questions you may have about making workplace accommodations based on religion (or disability). We can provide you with the legal guidance you’ll need to keep your business running smoothly.

 

  

Q & A: Job Accomodations Often Requested by Disabled Workers

Like most Americans, people living with chronic disabilities know that their best physical and mental health is often easiest to maintain when they’re doing meaningful work. Yet despite their strong work ethic – many of the disabled must still combat negative stereotypes that often don’t match the excellent work they do.

Fortunately, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) made it illegal for employers to discriminate against job applicants with known disabilities. The ADA applies to all employers with 15 or more employees and to all state and local government employers. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces all the provisions of the ADA.

Once employers become aware of the untapped talents and skills of the disabled, they still hesitate to hire people because they’re concerned about the “reasonable accommodations” they may need to make to help disabled workers function at their full capacity. However, most of the time, the special requests made by the disabled are relatively simple to handle.

Here’s a brief look at some of the questions employers often ask about properly honoring all the ADA’s provisions in the workplace.

Frequently asked questions concerning the Americans with Disabilities Act

Q:  What exactly constitutes a “disability” under this law?

A:  A job applicant’s disability is normally covered by the ADA if it involves a mental or physical impairment that substantially interferes with (or limits) an individual’s ability to handle a major activity like work.

Q:  Can my company require a job applicant to undergo a medical exam before extending a job offer?

A:  Generally, no. However, you can make a job offer that’s conditional, based on a satisfactory result of a post-offer medical exam (or inquiry) that’s required of all new employees entering in the same job category. Under certain circumstances, always best discussed in advance with your Houston employment law attorney, you can ask an applicant who has disclosed that s/he has a disability to either demonstrate the ability to perform the job’s required tasks – or at least describe how s/he will handle them due to the disability.

Q:  What constitutes a “reasonable accommodation?”

A:   Employers sometimes need to adjust or modify certain aspects of the job application process and how a job is performed so that a disabled person can readily enjoy the same rights and privileges extended to others without disabilities.

Q:  Do we have to grant preference to a disabled applicant over someone who is not disabled?

A:  No. One of the clearest examples provided by one source refers to a job where the employees may need to type rather fast. If the disabled job applicant’s best typing score (after being provided with appropriate testing accommodations) is only 50 wpm and a non-disabled applicant can type 75 wpm, the employer is completely free to hire the faster typist. Again, this holds true if fast typing skills are crucial to the job;

Q:  Can you provide concrete examples of reasonable accommodations that employers might need to provide?

A:  Yes. A sample list follows.

  1. You may need to modify how someone takes a qualifying exam, completes a training program or handles limited aspects of the job once hired. For example, a person with limited use of his hands may require special software that lets him dictate most of his work instead of typing it;
  2. You may have to honor certain lifting limitations or a requirement that someone remain seated in a regular chair most of the day. Depending on the disabled person’s special needs, particularly if she’s suffering from a spinal cord injury, you may need to provide an ergonomically correct chair. Of course, employers can object to some requests, if they can prove that purchasing the required equipment would likely impose an undue hardship on them;
  3. It may be necessary to allow a disabled person to work from home. Some disabled people need to work in either extremely high- or low-light environments. Others may need to telecommute so they can readily take certain medications — or periodically change, adjust or empty various medical devices they must wear. Still other employees may need to lie down and periodically rest their bodies due to various spinal cord or traumatic brain injuries that make sitting upright for lengthy periods of time too compromising or painful.

Please note that regardless of whether the disabled employee works at home or in a company’s office, no employer is required to lower their standards for the quality of work being done – nor lower their overall production standards;

  1. It may help to change an employee’s work schedule. This can help the disabled person perform the required tasks at a time of day or night that may be much more conducive for doing his/her best work;
  2. You may need to make special scheduling adjustments to help an employee with a known psychiatric or mental health impairment. This might include excusing the person from working rotating shifts; allowing the individual to take extra time to rest during the lunch hour — and making sure the employee has a work schedule that allows for regular therapy appointments during the day;
  3. It may be necessary to provide a TTY (text telephone) system to a worker who has suffered a significant hearing loss that’s been formally recognized as a disability;
  4. You may need to authorize a short-term leave from the job. This type of disability request will always revolve around special circumstances. For example, if a worker and his/her doctor both believe that such a leave is necessary to help improve the person’s health and ability to work, this might be useful. However, employers are not required to bear undue hardships and disrupt overall workflow by leaving critical positions unfilled for lengthy periods of time.

As all this material indicates, meeting ADA standards is usually a straightforward process. Odds are, you’ll soon discover that hiring disabled employees is a smart move since they’re normally highly qualified and eager to succeed.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can assist you as you try to conform with all the ADA’s provisions – while also creating a pleasant job atmosphere for all your employees.