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Religious Accommodation Q & A—Undue Hardship, Dress, Holidays

HR Policies & Procedures
by Stephen Bruce, PhD, PHR

In yesterday’s Advisor, we covered the tricky ground of religious accommodation. Today, a Q&A on hardship, dress, and holidays, plus an introduction to a unique, checklist-based audit system.

What Costs Equate to Undue Hardship?

Employers need not incur more than minimal costs to accommodate an employee’s religious practices. For example, infrequent or temporary overtime payments or administrative costs would not be considered undue hardships, while having to make regular payment of premium wages to a substitute worker might be. Similarly, it might be an undue hardship if an accommodation operated to deny another employee his or her job or shift preference in violation of a bona fide seniority system.

May a Standard for Dress Be Set?

In order to comply with religious beliefs, an employee may want to dress in a manner that does not comport with the look that the employer wants to convey to the public; for example, a male employee may want to wear a beard or a female employee may want to cover her head.

Employers may need to accommodate the dress and grooming habits based on a religious practice or belief, unless the employer has a policy against the dress or grooming habits that is justified by a business necessity.

For example, an employer is not required to accommodate long robes or skirts in an industrial plant where loose clothing may get caught in moving machinery.

Must Every Religious Holiday Be Accommodated?

It is important for employers to be sensitive to individual employee’s religious obligations regarding holiday observances. Employers should accommodate an employee’s request for time off for a holiday observance if the accommodation does not require more than a de minimis cost or burden to business operations (i.e., does not create an undue hardship).

Some courts have ruled that requiring employees to take paid or unpaid leave on days they wish to observe as personal religious holidays meets the test of reasonable accommodation. Many employers grant all employees one or two paid personal days or floating holidays each year for this purpose.


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Must Sabbath Observances Be Accommodated?

An employer has a duty to accommodate its employees’ religious beliefs and practices including letting employees observe their Sabbath day, regardless of the day of the week on which it falls. Most religious discrimination problems involve accommodation of employees seeking to observe their Sabbaths. Several U.S. Supreme Court decisions provide additional guidance for employers researching Sabbath observances:

  • Employers need not incur overtime costs to replace an employee who will not work on Saturday.
  • The complaints of fellow employees about having to work on Saturday in place of an employee who observes a Saturday Sabbath do not constitute undue hardship.
  • In accommodating an employee’s religious practices, employers are not required to choose the option the employee prefers, as long as the accommodation the employer offers is reasonable.
  • Employers are not required to take steps inconsistent with a valid seniority system or collective bargaining agreement to accommodate an employee’s religious practices.

Religious accommodations—a concern, but hardly the only one you’ll have to worry about today. And each one of them could be going wrong while you’re not looking. The solution? There’s only one: regular audits.

Audits are the only way to make sure that employees in every corner of your facility are operating within policy guidelines. If you’re not auditing, someone’s probably violating a policy right now.

The rub is that for most HR managers, it’s hard to get started auditing—where do you begin?

BLR’s editors recommend a unique product called HR Audit Checklists. Why are checklists so great? Because they’re completely impersonal, forcing you to jump through all the necessary hoops one by one. They also ensure consistency in how operations are conducted. That’s vital in HR, where it’s all too easy to land in court if you discriminate in how you treat one employee over another.


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HR Audit Checklists compels thoroughness. For example, it contains checklists both on Preventing Sexual Harassment and on Handling Sexual Harassment Complaints. You’d likely never think of all the possible trouble areas without a checklist; but with it, just scan down the list, and instantly see where you might get tripped up.

In fact, housed in the HR Audit Checklists binder are dozens of extensive lists, organized into reproducible packets, for easy distribution to line managers and supervisors. There’s a separate packet for each of the following areas:

  • Staffing and training (incorporating Equal Employment Opportunity in recruiting and hiring, including immigration issues)
  • HR administration (including communications, handbook content, and recordkeeping)
  • Health and safety (including OSHA responsibilities)
  • Benefits and leave (including health cost containment, COBRA, FMLA, workers’ compensation, and several areas of leave)
  • Compensation (payroll and the Fair Labor Standards Act)
  • Performance and termination (appraisals, discipline, and termination)

HR Audit Checklists is available to HR Daily Advisor readers for a no-cost, no-risk evaluation in your office for up to 30 days. Visit HR Audit Checklists, and we’ll be happy to arrange it.

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