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.