This article was written by originally published in the July 19, 2009 Zanesville TimesRecorder and is reprinted here with the permission of the author.
By Jim Evans
This is not your father’s workplace. A snapshot of today’s workforce looks dramatically different than it did a generation ago. Our workplaces are comprised of young people, senior citizens, and every age in between. Women work effectively in jobs that were traditionally held by men. Persons with disabilities contribute in ways never dreamed of before, and people of various races work side-by-side. Not only that, our workforce encompasses vastly different religious faiths, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, Islamic, Hindus, Buddhists, and a myriad of many other traditional and non-traditional religions. It’s not unusual for people of deep religious faith to work along side atheists and agnostics.
Our forefathers founded this country on the premise of freedom of religion, but it took the Civil Rights Act to make religious discrimination illegal in the workplace. Prior to 1964, many employers freely exercised their prerogative to not hire anyone whose religion vastly differed from their own. Today, things aren’t that simple. Because religious beliefs are protected and there is a more diverse workforce, religious accommodation issues have increased. In 1998, there were 1,786 religious discrimination charges filed with the EEOC. Ten years later, that number almost doubled to roughly 3,273 complaints. Although a diverse workforce is a source of strength for an organization, ironically it can simultaneously be a source of interpersonal conflict and liability.
Today’s employer has the obligation to assure that all employees are treated with respect, regardless of their religious faith. They are required to make reasonable exceptions to workplace policies and practices so employees of faith have the freedom to practice their religion at work, as long as the accommodation doesn’t cause an undue hardship. The challenge for employers is that requests for religious accommodations touch on almost every aspect of employment, and they often conflict with traditional workplace policy and practice. Whether and how to accommodate must be made on a case-by-case basis. For example, exceptions to strict dress codes may have to be made so an employee of faith can wear religious garb on the job, or display tattoos or piercings professed by the employee’s religion. However, some dress accommodations may be considered an undue hardship when the garb presents safety issues for the employee or others.
Armed with their rights, workers are sometimes vocal about their religion at work, because their religious teachings encourage followers to proselytize their beliefs to others. However, this right to proselytize to coworkers and customers must be balanced with the rights of those who ask them to refrain.
Religious accommodations sometimes focus on decorating of work spaces. If an employer allows personal items to decorate work spaces, an employee would normally have the right to decorate with religious objects. However, if that workspace is in public view, the employer may be able to rightfully deny the accommodation on the premise that the employee’s religious beliefs might be misconstrued as being representative of the company’s.
Employees often request time off for religious holidays or days of worship, or may want work breaks and separate areas to pray. Even special dietary food options for company picnics may be requested based on religious tenet. Regularly assigned job duties might also need to be considered for accommodation, as was the case when a group of pharmacists turned customers away, refusing to dispense birth control pills based on their own personal religious beliefs.
The majority of employees asking for religious accommodations are sincere in their beliefs, but some requests are made under the cloak of religion, but are based, in reality, on personal preference. Employers are expected to be able to discern the difference. Accommodations based on personal preferences are not required. According to the EEOC, religious beliefs are concerned with “ultimate ideas” about “life, purpose, and death” but does not include social, political, or economic philosophies, or personal preferences. Employers may inquire to determine if the request is based on a religious doctrine. A point of caution though. Religion covers not only traditional religions, but also religions that are new or uncommon. A religion doesn’t have to be part of a formal church or sect, and can be subscribed to by a small number of people. Beliefs may seem illogical, but it may be a religion just the same.
There are no easy cookie-cutter answers to making religious accommodations. Each request must be considered on the facts and circumstances, and in consideration of guidelines issued by the EEOC and the Courts. Links that offer guidance are found on the EEOC’s Web site at www. eeoc.gov. Although employers initially decide if it is reasonable to accommodate, it may end up that the EEOC or courts second guesses their decision.
Jim Evans is President of JK Evans & Associates LLC, a Zanesville-based human resource-consulting firm serving throughout Ohio. Jim can be reached at email@example.com. You can visit Evans and Associates at http://www.evansandassociates.com