Accommodating Religion, Belief and Spirituality in the Workplace

September 10, 2015
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Scope—This toolkit provides an overview of the legal compliance and HR issues and processes for providing religious accommodations of employees’ sincerely held religious, ethical and moral beliefs under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a U.S. anti-discrimination law. This toolkit also explores some of the related issues of religious expression, discrimination, harassment, diversity and workplace proselytizing. This article does not address global laws or issues.

Overview

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers must reasonably accommodate employees' sincerely held religious, ethical and moral beliefs or practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer. A reasonable religious accommodation is any adjustment to the work environment that allows employees to practice their religion or sincerely held ethical or moral beliefs.

Modifications to workplace practices, policies or procedures, such as flexible scheduling, voluntary substitutions, swaps, job reassignments and lateral transfers, are a few examples of how an employer might accommodate an employee's religious beliefs, practices and observances.

Many employers question to what degree they must accommodate employees' religious practices or expressions that may include proselytizing or converting other employees to their religious, ethical or moral viewpoints. Employers may also wonder just how far they must go in allowing employees to express their beliefs during the workday and to what degree they must provide resources like the use of employer equipment or facilities.

Employers may also be concerned that when accommodation of sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs is appropriate, what could seem reasonable to some may run the risk of offending others, especially those with opposite religious, ethical or moral beliefs, practices and observances.

Background

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defines religion to include "all aspects of religious observance and practice as well as belief." Religion includes not only traditional organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism but also religious, ethical and moral beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal or organized religion or sect, or only subscribed to by a small number of people.

Title VII also prohibits discrimination and workplace harassment based on religion, which may occur when applicants or employees are required or coerced to abandon, alter or adopt a religious practice as a condition of employment, or when applicants or employees are subjected to unwelcome remarks or conduct based on religion. Applicants or employees who profess to have no religious beliefs are also protected from discrimination and harassment under Title VII.

Religious accommodation involves and provides applicants and employees with protection from discrimination and harassment so they may practice and observe their religious, ethical or moral beliefs free from conflict between their employment responsibilities and their religious beliefs, needs and practices. 

By adopting policies and practices that respect all religious beliefs and by accommodating employees' beliefs when possible, HR professionals can improve employee morale and increase productivity while reducing the risk of legal problems. See Matters of Faith.

Studies and data show that when employers address religion—when they actually tackle it head-on and not pretend it is not there—employees are happier, and these companies are more likely to attract the best and the brightest.

In March 2014 the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), when issuing guidance on religious accommodations and protections under Title VII, stated in a publication titled Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities that:

Religious practices may be based on theistic beliefs or non-theistic moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right or wrong that are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views. Religious observances or practices include, for example, attending worship services, praying, wearing religious garb or symbols, displaying religious objects, adhering to certain dietary rules, proselytizing or other forms of religious expression, or refraining from certain activities. Moreover, an employee's belief or practice can be 'religious' under Title VII even if it is not followed by others in the same religious sect, denomination, or congregation, or even if the employee is unaffiliated with a formal religious organization.1

The law's protections also extend to employees who are discriminated against or need accommodation because they profess no religious beliefs.

Business Case

Religion has become a significant workplace issue as the United States has become more diverse. Some employees may need ongoing accommodations to practice daily religious activities in their workplaces, whereas other employees may require occasional modifications. As with sexual harassment, employers have a legal responsibility to ensure that employees are not discriminated against or harassed on the basis of religion.

Religious discrimination, retaliation and failure to provide reasonable religious accommodations have numerous and costly consequences to organizations. Employers could pay up to $300,000 to settle religious discrimination charges brought to the EEOC.

An EEOC charge or a lawsuit can also involve additional costs, including attorneys' fees, compensatory damages and costs that are harder to quantify, such as the effect a charge or lawsuit has on productivity, revenue, turnover, employee engagement, retention and the employer's reputation. See Religious Discrimination Cases Provide Employers with Costly Lessons.

Statistics from the EEOC on religion-based charges reported that in fiscal year 2014, $8.7 million was paid out in monetary settlements due to religion-based charges.

Some studies have unveiled other, more hidden costs. For example, one study found that workers who are different religiously from others in the workplace are more likely to have poor experiences at work. 2 For that study, George Cunningham, a Texas A&M University researcher, collected data from 260 managers across the U.S. about religious beliefs, policies and practices in the workplace (this included wearing or displaying religious items, praying, or playing religious music). He found that religious beliefs brought into a workplace can affect the way people experience work and may affect productivity. His study showed that employees who think their religious beliefs make them a little bit "different" at work are probably right. These employees are different and are less likely to fit in. Cunningham also concluded that the reverse can be true; when employees are religiously similar to their colleagues, they are more likely to fit into the workplace and be satisfied with their jobs. See Companies Face Risks by Favoring One Religion.

Other studies have found that when employers allow spirituality to be expressed, employee levels of commitment and engagement increase.

"Whenever we subjugate something that makes [other people] different, it lessens their ability to be productive and satisfied in their work," said Michelle Knox, an executive consultant for Boston-based Novations Group in a 2008 HR Magazine article titled "Religion at Work." It is no coincidence, then, that in a SHRM religion and corporate culture survey, HR professionals said employee morale was most affected by employers granting religious accommodations.

HR's Role

The HR professional's role and approach when it comes to accommodating religion, belief and spirituality in the workplace is often diverse and multifaceted. However, most HR professionals will find their involvement usually includes:

  • Establishing, administering and monitoring policies and practices to comply with applicable federal, state and local laws.
  • Promoting diversity and nondiscrimination practices while reflecting the organization's mission, values and culture.
  • Educating managers and employees on ways to prevent religious harassment and discrimination while valuing diversity. See Training Can Help Prevent Religion-Related Gaffes.
  • Advising and providing resources and training for providing accommodations and ensuring that employers are not retaliating against employees who request or are denied religious accommodations.
  • Handling organizational and employee communications regarding accommodation issues.
  • Determining whether a particular accommodation is reasonable or creates an undue hardship to the organization. See Religious Accommodation: Request and Employer Response.  

HR professionals' first steps may involve conducting an audit of their organizations' practices. This audit allows HR professionals to conduct an extensive and objective review and appraisal of their organizations' legal compliance, policies and procedures, culture, strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities. The results obtained from this focused and intense review can provide HR and the organization with the information necessary to determine what policies or practices need to be created, revised or improved.

Other HR professionals may first be involved in training and coaching managers on their legal and compliance responsibilities as part of their organizations' strategic policy development process.

As acceptance of religious practice becomes more commonplace in the workplace, employers may wonder to what degree they must allow employees to express their beliefs during the workday. This is another issue in which employers can turn to HR for assistance.

Without proper communication and oversight, employers may find that e-mail, voice mail and employee workspaces are taken over with religious messages and images that may be perceived as offensive by other employees, customers, clients or applicants.

Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are arguably concepts that most Americans hold dear. When an employee uses these perceived freedoms to such an extent that he or she uses company equipment or systems to promote personal beliefs or interferes with the organization's ability to conduct business, an employer should feel comfortable in taking action. HR can assist by establishing boundaries for employees and identifying which tools are for business use only, including the organization's electronic systems. Religious messages on voice mail and e-mail systems do not have to be permitted when consistently applied policies and practices state that such systems are for business use only. See Computer, Email and Internet Use Policy.

By the same token, organizations that allow employees to decorate their workspaces without setting guidelines for what is appropriate may find it difficult to address what may appear to be an overuse of religious symbols and messages. What is reasonable often depends on the nature of the business, the job being performed and the amount of access others have to a particular employee's workstation. See Office Decorations Policy.

An employer can also assure employees that while the organization wants all employees to feel free to express their beliefs as needed, the organization reserves the right to control what an individual employee does in certain circumstances. These could include, for example, activities that improperly use company equipment, interfere with the ability to do business, become excessive or possibly be offensive.

Harassment, such as offensive remarks about a person's religious beliefs or practices, or lack thereof, if frequent or so severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment, is illegal. Organizations can be liable for religious harassment by supervisors, co-workers, clients and customers. Organizations will find it an effective practice to implement anti-harassment policies that include procedures for reporting, investigating and correcting harassing conduct. See Make Sure Religion at Work Stays on Right Side of Line.

Examples of Religious Accommodations

What is a religious accommodation?
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) in its guidance to federal agencies defines "reasonable accommodation" as:

(A)ny adjustment to the work environment that will allow an employee or applicant to practice his or her religion. The need for religious accommodation may arise where an individual's religious beliefs, observances or practices conflict with a specific task or requirement of the position or an application process. Accommodation requests often relate to work schedules, dress and grooming, or religious expression in the workplace. If it would not pose an undue hardship, the employer must grant the accommodation.

See Religious Discrimination and Accommodation in the Federal Workplace.

A religious accommodation entails the good-faith efforts of employers, employees and applicants, and must meet both the religious beliefs, practices and observances of the employee and the employer's job requirements or selection process.

Accommodations may vary from providing an employee leave for religious observances, flexible work schedules, and providing a time and place to pray, to modifications of employer policies, procedures and practices, including employer dress codes and grooming standards.

See:

Accommodating Muslim Employees During Ramadan

Requests for Sabbath Time Off Require Careful Response

Religious Accommodations: Absences and Schedule Changes (sample form)

Modifications to workplace practices and policies such as an employer's dress and grooming standards are often at issue. Generally speaking, employers have the right to set boundaries and create dress codes, grooming standards and policies, including wearing jewelry or displaying tattoos, body art or piercings.

In a case brought against Red Robin Gourmet Burgers Inc., however, the EEOC alleged that the hamburger chain refused to offer a server any accommodation for his Kemetic religion, an ancient Egyptian faith, by ordering him to cover his tattoos and by illegally firing him when he failed to comply. The tattoos, which were less than a quarter-inch wide and encircled the employee's wrists, quoted a verse from an Egyptian scripture and were written in a liturgical Egyptian language. The employee's religious beliefs, he claimed, made it a sin to intentionally conceal the religious inscriptions. Red Robin settled the case for $150,000.

When an employer institutes dress or grooming policies that conflict with an employee's religious beliefs or practices, the employee may ask for an exception to the policy as a reasonable accommodation. Unless the employer can demonstrate an undue hardship, religious discrimination may be found when an employer fails to accommodate the employee's religious dress or grooming requirements or practices. In March 2014, the EEOC published guidance for employers. See EEOC Issues New Publications on Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace and Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities.

Also see the SHRM toolkit Managing Employee Dress and Appearance and the following related policies:

Dress Code: Attire and Grooming Policy

Dress Code: Business Attire Policy

Dress Code: Jewelry and Tattoo Policy

When workplace safety, health or security are at stake, employees can be prevented from wearing their religious attire in the workplace according to question number 12 in the EEOC publication, Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities:

May an employer bar an employee's religious dress or grooming practice based on workplace safety, security, or health concerns?

Yes, but only if the practice actually poses an undue hardship on the operation of the business. The employer should not assume that the accommodation would pose an undue hardship. While safety, security, or health may justify denying accommodation in a given situation, the employer may do so only if the accommodation would actually pose an undue hardship. In many instances, there may be an available accommodation that will permit the employee to adhere to religious practices and will permit the employer to avoid undue hardship.

Health and safety issues are a special concern in some industries such as health care, hospitality, manufacturing and corrections. Employers must enforce certain guidelines to protect employees or others from injury. These guidelines often include restrictions related to dress and appearance. HR professionals may be required to enforce such restrictions and may have to deny requests for exemptions from such policies. For example, requested exemptions may stem from employees' need to wear certain religious garb.

In one case, three Muslim women employed in a prison requested accommodation to wear head coverings at work. They were denied the accommodation based on safety grounds. The prison successfully argued that the head coverings posed hazards in that an inmate could use them to strangle the employees, or the coverings could make it difficult to identify employees, or the head coverings could be used to hide contraband.

Proselytizing and use of company facilities
According to the EEOC an employer should not try to suppress all religious expression in the workplace. Title VII requires that employers accommodate an employee's sincerely held religious beliefs, including engaging in religious expression in the workplace, to the extent that the employee can do so without undue hardship on the operation of the business. See Religious Accommodation: Do we have to allow employees to proselytize or use religious expressions/greetings?

When it comes to permitting religious expression such as prayer, Bible study or proselytizing in the workplace, many employers are concerned about the disruptive impact it might have on their business operations. The EEOC cautions employers not to speculate on possible disruptions but to train managers to gauge the actual disruption posed by religious expression in the workplace.

Managers should also be trained in how to identify alternative accommodations that might be offered to avoid disruption. For example, some employers may designate an unused or private workplace location for prayer or Bible study to prevent disrupting other workers. Employers should consider incorporating into anti-harassment training for managers and employees a discussion of religious expression and the need for all employees to be sensitive to the beliefs or nonbeliefs of others. See Religious Accommodations: Should employers allow employees to use the conference room for Bible study?

See also this sample policy from the DOL for its employees: Religious Expression in the DOL Workplace.

Prayer at meetings and employer-sponsored holiday parties
Organizations have rights to limit religious expression in their workplaces regardless of an employee's position in the organization. Georgette Bennett, president and founder of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding is quoted as saying: "There is no legal mandate to accommodate practices that are perceived as harassing by others. When those in positions of power feel led by their faith to proselytize, they should proceed cautiously so as not to be perceived as pushing their own religious beliefs on their staff—something that could easily lead to a lawsuit." See the rest of her comments in A Wing and a Prayer: Religious Conflict at the Air Force Academy.

Employers can create legal risks and vulnerabilities by proselytizing or by favoring one religion or one set of religious, moral or ethical beliefs over others, or by their favoring belief over nonbelief, as seen by a court ruling in March 2014. In that case, a New York City restaurateur was alleged to have discriminated against a lesbian chef by requiring her to attend workplace prayer meetings and by exposing her to homophobic rhetoric.

The Supreme Court of New York decided in the chef's favor and awarded her $1.6 million in punitive and compensatory damages after finding her boss guilty of discrimination based on religion and sexual orientation in violation of the New York City Human Rights Law. Restaurant owner Edward Globokar acted unlawfully by requiring staff to attend weekly prayer meetings and by repeatedly telling employees that homosexuality was "a sin" and that "gay people" were "going to hell," the trial court held.

Employers that allow the use of company facilities for Bible study should ensure that employees are free from religious discrimination or harassment. This means ensuring that participation is voluntary, employees who choose not to participate do not experience explicit or subtle forms of coercion or hostility, and participation or lack of it is not used as a factor in any employment decisions such as work assignments, promotions or performance evaluations.

Holiday parties
Company events like holiday parties can also become hot-button concerns, especially when it comes to the types of celebrations and scheduling. See Consider Religious Beliefs When Scheduling Events.

Also see the section on party protocols in Don't Be Spooked By Holiday Parties and the following recommendations:

  • Solicit and welcome employee input.
  • Embrace and celebrate diversity.
  • Celebrate the end of the year instead of linking the party to a religious holiday.
  • Make party attendance voluntary.
  • Keep the music and play list work-appropriate.
  • Remind managers that they are on duty.
  • Remind employees of the company's policies on discrimination and harassment.
  • If gifts are to be exchanged, make the exchange voluntary and general in nature; give employees guidelines on what is, and is not, appropriate.
  • If the organization donates to charity during the holidays, choose the recipient organization carefully. Some charitable organizations have religious affiliations that not all employees embrace, so alternatives should be offered.

Job assignments and lateral transfers
Another type of religious accommodation may include a work reassignment or position change. The EEOC, in a publication titled Best Practices for Eradicating Religious Discrimination in the Workplace, suggests that employers consider a lateral transfer when no other accommodations are appropriate and after employers have explored the gamut of options. Employees, however, may voluntarily request a transfer to a lower-paying position.

Other Legal and Compliance Issues

Distinguishing religious discrimination, harassment and undue hardship
The EEOC published a question and answer guide that outlines a definition of religious harassment and the responsibility of employers to prevent and curtail it in their workplaces. The EEOC clarifies that illegal harassment goes beyond simple teasing or isolated incidents and that victims must experience an "adverse employment action." An adverse employment action may include being fired, being demoted or not being promoted because these actions include a negative economic consequence to the employee.

In a lawsuit, it is the claimant's responsibility to demonstrate that an adverse employment action occurred. In one case, an EEOC investigator in South Carolina lost his religious-discrimination and failure-to-accommodate claims against the EEOC. Gregory Somers, the investigator and a Christian, asked the EEOC for a religious exemption from being required to investigate discrimination claims based on sexual orientation. When the EEOC denied the request, Somers sued.  The EEOC successfully argued that Somers failed to show he had suffered an adverse employment action, as required to establish a Title VII claim.

In another case, Yabesh Maroko, a devout Seventh-day Adventist, sued his company, claiming that Werner Enterprises, Inc. had failed to accommodate his religious beliefs in violation of Title VII. The court noted that Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer not to make reasonable accommodations for an employee's religious practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship. Werner argued that Maroko could not make a prima facie case of religious discrimination for failure to accommodate because he could not show that he was disciplined for failing to comply with an employment requirement that conflicted with his religious beliefs.

Maroko abandoned his job voluntarily, the company argued, but the court disagreed. It said that the company decided not to assign Maroko any work. Moreover, even if Maroko had somehow abandoned his job, this was because Werner told him it could not accommodate his religious beliefs, the court added.

Determining if a religious accommodation request is based on a legitimate religious belief
Employers often ask how they can determine if a religious accommodation request is based on a legitimate religious belief.  Generally speaking, this determination is made on a case-by-case basis. It usually involves interactive discussions between the employer and the employee.

The question of whether a particular belief is or is not religious in nature is one that employers normally will not want to address. But in some situations the employer may reasonably question either the sincerity of the particular belief or whether it is in fact religious in nature. In such cases, the employer is justified in seeking additional information from the employee. See Religious Accommodation: Documentation: Can we require documentation from a religious authority to verify an employee's employee's request for religious accommodation?

Undue hardship exemption
Another issue that arises is the undue hardship exemption and how to determine if a religious accommodation creates an undue hardship for the employer. In making this determination, employers often consider customer or co-worker complaints. The EEOC cautions employers against this. Customer preference is not a defense against a discrimination claim. If a business takes an action based on the preferences of others, including customers, clients or co-workers, it is unlawfully discriminating. For instance, an employer cannot assign someone to a noncustomer-contact position or to a backroom job because the worker's religious dress or grooming offends customers. See "Customer Complaints" in Of Hijabs, Short Skirts and Rastafarian Locks.

In Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities, the EEOC explains that "(a)ssigning applicants or employees to a non-customer contact position because of actual or feared customer preference violates Title VII's prohibition on limiting, segregating, or classifying employees based on religion. Even if the employer is following its uniformly applied employee policy or practice, it is not permitted to segregate an employee due to fear that customers will have a biased response to religious garb or grooming. The law requires the employer to make an exception to its policy or practice as a religious accommodation, because customer preference is not undue hardship."

What should employers consider when determining if implementing a particular religious accommodation creates an undue hardship? Factors relevant to the undue hardship exemption may include the nature of the employee's duties and the identifiable cost of the accommodation in relation to the size and operating costs of the employer. Employers may also consider the impact the proposed accommodation has on other employees, including their safety, job rights or benefits. Employers should consider how the proposed accommodations may require or cause other employees to carry an inordinate amount of work. The EEOC cautions, though, that other general employee complaints, disgruntlement, resentment, jealousy or dissatisfaction does not meet the undue hardship threshold.

Finally, employers must evaluate whether the proposed accommodation conflicts with other laws, including legally mandated safety or security requirements.

To prove undue hardship, the employer must demonstrate the actual costs or disruption a proposed accommodation would involve.

Process for Providing Religious Accommodations

The process of providing religious accommodations to employees usually starts with an employee request.

Some employer policies require employees to submit their requests to their immediate supervisors. Others will direct employees to submit their religious accommodation requests directly to HR. Depending on the organization's policy and procedure, once the employee request has been received, the organization will determine whether to honor the request as outlined, require an interactive process or determine if the request creates an undue burden to the employer. The organization may also want to consider an appeals process for requests that are denied. See Religious Accommodation: Request and Employer Response and Religious Accommodation Policy.

Determining Factors When Approving a Religious Accommodation

Factors that are considered in this determination include the nature of the accommodation requested, the duration of the request, alternative accommodations, the impact on the operation of the department or the unit, and the ability of the individual to perform the essential functions of the position if the accommodation is granted.

Religious Accommodation and Inclusion

Accommodating religion, belief and spirituality in the workplace includes establishing a work environment where differences are treated with respect and inclusion. Employers should provide meaningful job performance and career feedback, and recognize and reward employees for quality work and for behaviors that build partnerships and increase collaboration. Employers should also reduce any fear of retaliation by employees who disagree with a manager or who do not conform to the manager's preferred management style. Managers should demonstrate an "adaptive management" style. An adaptive management style refers to the ability of a manager to learn to modify his or her preferred leadership style by figuring out and providing what an individual employee needs to be successful in the job. The absence of these management competencies causes employees to feel they are not valued or respected. It is the responsibility of a manager to be aware, knowledgeable and respectful of a wide range of religious and nonreligious beliefs without favoring one group over another. See When Does Religious Inclusion Become Exclusionary?

Templates and Tools

Samples: Forms and policies

Religious Accommodation Policy

Religious Accommodation: Request and Employer Response

Religious Accommodation Policy: Absences

Leave Policy: Floating Holidays

Conduct: Employee Conduct and Work Rules Policy

Diversity Policy

Dress Code: Attire and Grooming Policy

Dress Code: Business Attire Policy

Dress Code: Jewelry and Tattoo Policy

Office Decorations Policy 

Information tools

Religious Accommodations: Documentation: Can we require documentation from a religious authority to verify an employee's request for religious accommodation?

Religious Accommodations: Holidays: Must employers allow employees to have religious holidays off?

Religious Accommodations: Schedule Change: Must an employer accommodate an employee who cannot work Saturdays due to religious beliefs?

Religious Accommodations: Documentation: Can we require documentation from a religious authority to verify an employee's request for religious accommodation?

Religious Accommodations: Should employers allow employees to use the conference room for Bible study?

Dress & Appearance: Tattoos/Piercings: May employers have dress code requirements that prohibit all visible tattoos and piercings?

MS PowerPoint: Harassment (Race/Color, Religion, National Origin and Disability) Training for Supervisors

How to Manage Requests for Religious Accommodations in California 

Agencies and organizations

EEOC on religious discrimination

EEOC's Best Practices for Eradicating Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

 

Endnotes

1U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (n.d.). Religious garb and grooming in the workplace: Rights and responsibilities. Available at http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/qa_religious_garb_grooming.cfm

2Cunningham, G. B. (2010). The influence of religious personal identify on the relationships among religious dissimilarity, value dissimilarity, and job satisfaction. Social Justice Research, 23(1), 60-76.



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