HR Policies & Procedures

Acting in Good Faith: How to Deal with Religion in the Workplace

The Constitution protects the freedom to practice religion. Employers must honor this right while balancing the needs of the business. Here are some guidelines for doing both.

In virtually every religion, there are significant days on the calendar that dictate religious observance. For example, next Monday, October 2, is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and the holiest day of the Jewish year. It is a day when many Jewish people go to synagogue to observe, and working is forbidden.

Religion Impacting the Workplace

The absence of Jewish workers Monday is just one expression of when religion has an impact on the workplace. There are lots of others.

Workers may wear specific religious articles of clothing or display religious symbols. They may need breaks from work for required prayer during the workday. (Muslims, for example, may pray five times a day.) Employees may openly profess their faith, and some may proselytize others to join it. Or some may choose to form religious affinity groups within the confines of your workforce.

Accommodating Religion in the Workplace

What are your responsibilities under the Constitution, which guarantees free speech and religious freedom, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which protects workers from being discriminated against either because they are part of … or not part of … any given religion?

Attorneys Victoria L. Donati and Jason C. Kim, of the Chicago law firm of Neal, Gerber and Eisenberg, recently wrote on this question. Here’s a summary of the points they made.

–As an employer, it’s your job to accommodate religious beliefs in the workplace, up to the point where a court would call it an undue hardship to your business or a safety or health hazard. That means altering your dress code and workday schedules, as needed, to permit religious expression and activities. You can ask workers to take religious holidays as vacation or personal days, or to use “floating holidays.” And you can ask workers to modify their religious dress to “be consistent with a company image or uniform standard,” say Donati and Kim.

–You must be sure religion plays no part in any employment decision or action. That means no questions on religion in interviewing, no favorable or unfavorable treatment in promotion or job assignment, no penalties for refusal to, for example, join the company owner’s church or engage in voluntary prayer. Such prayer is allowable but you need to make it absolutely clear that attendance is not mandatory, and there will be no employment consequences for not participating. If you have a company chaplain, as some organizations do, use of his or her services must be strictly voluntary.

–If you allow a religious affinity group for one religion, you need to allow the same for all others, offering the same level of facilities and other support. Groups that denigrate other religions or cultures can legally be banned.

–You must have and enforce strong policies against religious harassment, just as for any other harassment. Workers must be protected against unwelcome attempts to convert them and against religious slurs, intentional or not. Be aware that such actions by managers and supervisors are more likely to be considered harassment, due to the power of their positions, so training is advisable.

“Religion is creeping into the workplace,” say Donati and Kim. “Smart employers recognize and rise to this challenge, acting now to avoid bigger problems in the future.”

Have you encountered issues of religion in the workplace? How did you handle them? Use the Share Your Comments button and let us know.