Human Resources News & Insights

Religion at work: What HR needs to watch for now

Religious discrimination: It’s becoming more common as a legal complaint — and it’s one that’s still misunderstood by many employers.

Last year, 2,880 religious discrimination charges were filed with the EEOC. That’s still a small percentage of the total charges, but the number’s rising quickly. Since 1992, religious bias claims have nearly doubled.

To clarify what companies need to look out for, the EEOC has offered some guidance in the form of a 94-page Compliance Manual. Here’s what the agency wants HR to know:

‘Religion’ defined

The law requires employers to accommodate — and not discriminate on the basis of — employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs. But what’s protected under the law?

The answer: A lot of things, according to the EEOC. It isn’t just traditional, organized religions that get protection. The law also covers beliefs that are “new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others.”

How about the question of whether beliefs are “sincerely held” — in other words, what if you think someone’s faking it?

Not much luck for the employers there, either. As the EEOC says, “the ‘sincerity’ of an employee’s stated religious belief is usually not in dispute.” In some cases, insincerity may be obvious, but it’s usually best to give the employee the benefit of the doubt, since courts tend to believe employees’ beliefs are legit.

Religious accommodations

Most of the claims involve a failure to accommodate. The most common accommodations include occasional or permanent schedule changes, exceptions from dress codes and other rules to allow religious expression, and transferring employees or changing job duties if their beliefs bar them from performing a specific task.

Companies normally have to accommodate an employee if:

  • The employee gives notice. Workers need to tell a supervisor what they want and explain that they want it for religious reasons.
  • Co-workers’ rights aren’t interfered with. If an employee’s religious expression involves pressuring others to change their own beliefs or other forms of harassment, that behavior doesn’t need to be tolerated.
  • The request is reasonable. Companies don’t need to take on “undue hardships.” For example, if nearly everyone in a department asks not to work a certain day of the week, or if there’s a legitimate business need for not making policy exceptions, the request can usually be denied.

What if co-workers complain that someone’s getting “special treatment”? That’s a reason some companies give for denying requests — and it’s the wrong move, says the EEOC.

The “undue hardship” has to be more than just the resentment or jealousy of other employees. There must be an actual cost involved, such as a big drop in productivity or the need to pay a lot of overtime to cover a schedule change.

Other pitfalls

In addition to botched accommodations, here are some things the EEOC says can get companies snagged with religious bias claims:

  • Hiring practices — Obviously, you can’t refuse to hire someone because they do or don’t hold a certain belief. But companies are also barred from asking applicants if they need any religious accommodations, such as time off. What can you do? Just make sure applicants understand the schedule you need and ask if there’ll be any problems.
  • Inconsistency — The Compliance Manual gives an example of a manager with two employees who follow different beliefs. They’ve both been late to work because of religious services. If the manager treats one of them differently, the company would probably have a lawsuit on its hands.
  • Harassment — As with sexual harassment, employers can be liable if employees are harassed based on their religious beliefs.

You can read the entire document from the EEOC here.

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  • Marleen

    Once a claim for discrimination goes through the EEOC process and the employee receives a right to sue letter, what is the next step for the employee. Do they file a civil suit? Which court system is the case heard?

  • Art Arleth

    The link to the EEOC document didn’t work.

  • Sam Narisi

    Thanks, Art. It should be working now.

    Sam Narisi

  • Richard

    what about introducing things into the Company that have religious overtones? for example, i have a manager who wants to introduce an personality assessement from a christian ministeries that has religious overtones in its report. i have stayed away and have advised my concerns about how employees may take this. what is the right approach?

  • Drew

    Marleen, once you get the “right to sue” letter you have 90 days to file a case against the employer in Federal court.

  • Lindsay

    If I have been working at the same place for 2 years and 9 months and have always been off on Wednesday nights and all day on Sundays because I trully go to church and am very religious. Now they are making everyone work on Sundays because the more experienced workers are taking off. Do I have any right to not work becuase they knew from the time I was hired that I could not work and agreed to it, along with my application that states I cannot work on Sundays. Is there anything I can do?