HR Seeks Balance in Handling Religion in the Workplace

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Oct 21, 2008
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The latest Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey on religion finds that a majority of organizational leaders foster a secular work environment even when employees practice a variety of religions.

The October 2008 report, Religion and Corporate Culture: Accommodating Religious Diversity in the Workplace, notes that nearly two-thirds of respondents (64 percent) said they have “some” religious/spiritual diversity among employees in their organizations. One in four said they have “a great deal” of religious/spiritual diversity.

Yet nearly all respondents (98 percent) said groups of religiously diverse employees work together cooperatively.

“When it comes to religious inclusivity, it is in the best interest of all companies— whether secular or slightly more religious—to be aware of their employees’ religious diversity and to be sensitive to the needs of both believers and nonbelievers,” noted Georgette Bennett, Ph.D., president and founder of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding and a member of SHRM’s Workplace Diversity Special Expertise Panel, in the report.

One way that organizations convey their sensitivity to employee beliefs is by adapting the work environment to enable employees to practice their beliefs during the workday.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to “reasonably accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs, observances and practices when requested, unless accommodation would impose an undue hardship on business operations.”

The survey suggests that employers are working to fulfill this obligation in a variety of ways.

HR professionals said the most prevalent types of religious accommodations granted in the prior 12 months included consideration of different religious beliefs of employees when planning holiday-related events (55 percent), allowing religious decorations in an individual’s workspace (44 percent), providing flexible scheduling to accommodate employees’ religious practices at work (43 percent) and taking religious holidays into account when planning work-related events (40 percent).

Respondents also said they offer foods that meet various religion-based dietary needs in their cafeteria or meetings (27 percent), make dress code modifications (17 percent), designate space for religious practices (15 percent) and allow on-site religion-based affinity groups (9 percent).

Most respondents (56 percent) offer either paid leave (28 percent) or unpaid leave (28 percent) for holidays not regularly covered by the organization. But 44 percent reportedly offer no leave for other holidays.

The overwhelming majority of respondents (91 percent) reported that the number of religious accommodation requests remained the same over the past 12 months.

“This is an important finding,” Bennett noted. “One of the reasons that many employers are reluctant to address the issue of religious accommodation is their fear that by granting a few requests they will open the floodgates to an overwhelming flow of demands. Clearly, this is not the case.”

SHRM research findings suggest that the increased availability of flexible scheduling options such as compressed workweeks and telecommuting might make it possible for some employees to practice their religious beliefs without the need to request a specific accommodation.

Balancing Interests

“Employees are annoyed when holiday-related events tend to favor one group or ignore other groups,” said Michelle Singletary, a member of SHRM’s Employee Relations Special Expertise Panel, in the report. “Employees tend to want freedom of expression (within reason) of their own work areas, and individuals generally want the freedom, even in scheduling, to express their personal beliefs.

“It’s HR’s (and supervisors’) responsibility to find a balance—enough balance to allow employees freedom of expression without offending others or creating hostile work environments,” Singletary added. “I think finding the right balance and providing accommodations where necessary increases employee morale and productivity. It also can help develop an appreciation for diversity.”

This is easier said than done. Employee beliefs and practices can vary widely, even within the same religious faith, making it difficult for employers to respond to requests for accommodation in a fair and consistent manner.

Some of the challenges employers face might be corrected easily through systemic changes.

For example, only 40 percent of organizations said they had a formal avenue for employees to request religious accommodation in the work setting, but 74 percent of companies granted their employees’ requests for religious accommodation in the past 12 months. “This suggests that while most employers are attempting to meet the religious needs of their employees, for the most part these requests are handled informally,” the report’s author notes.

The survey found that just 2 percent of respondents have a separate religious diversity policy. Forty-nine percent include religious diversity in an overall diversity policy, and an equal number have no written religious diversity policy.

Moreover, a majority (63 percent) of respondents don’t include religion and spirituality in their employee training. Of the respondents that do offer such training, 58 percent added it to their employee training in the past five years and 36 percent added it in the past 12 months.

This might explain why HR involvement in the accommodation process remains high. Forty-four percent of respondents said HR was the primary accommodation decision-maker, compared with 17 percent who said this responsibility falls to the immediate supervisor and 19 percent who said the CEO/president makes the call.

“I was surprised by the high percentage of organizations that have the HR staff grant religious accommodations, as opposed to having supervisors do so,” Singletary observed. “I would think that supervisors would be better able to grant an individual employee’s request. … It would be more efficient than having to go through HR for individual accommodation that could be easily resolved.”

Raising the Bar

The report provides four key areas in which employers should concentrate their efforts to help balance individual employee needs and the needs of the workplace:

  • Offer holiday swapping or floating holiday policies to make it easier for non-Christian employees to take time off to celebrate the holidays that are meaningful to them.
  • Provide training and information on religious diversity and inclusivity at the manager level and during orientation and employee training to help employees understand how they can take steps to create a more inclusive environment at work.
  • Ensure that employees have the flexibility in their schedules and a space for daily religious practices such as prayer.
  • Develop a formal policy on religion that is distinct from a general diversity policy to show employees that their religious beliefs are respected.

“The mere inclusion of religion in a list of protected classes in the boilerplate diversity policy does not address the critical issue of accommodation,” Bennett said. “Of all the protected classes, religion and disability are the only ones that require accommodation. The best practice is to adopt a distinct religious diversity policy.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an editor/manager for SHRM Online.

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