HR Management & Compliance

EEOC Releases New Guidance on Avoiding Religious Discrimination

Recently, Lynn Noyes, a permanent software developer at temp agency Kelly Services in Nevada City (near Sacramento) won a massive $6.5 million verdict when a jury found that Noyes’ manager failed to select Noyes for promotion because she lacked certain religious beliefs held by that manager. Evidence in the case showed that the manager also tended to favor employees who belonged to the same religious organization as the manager, the Fellowship of Friends. (For a full analysis of this case, click here »)

Could this happen in your workplace? Unfortunately, claims of religious discrimination, or discrimination based on the lack of certain religious beliefs, are all too common. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), religion-based charge filings were at their highest ever last year.

Now, the EEOC has released new guidance for employers and employees on how to avoid religious bias in the workplace, as well as how to balance the needs of individuals in a diverse religious climate. The guidance—which includes a series of questions and answers—addresses issues such as what is religion, what constitutes religious harassment, when employers must accommodate an applicant or employee’s religious belief, practice, or observance, and common methods of accommodation.

Avoid religious and other types of workplace bias and harassment; download California Employer Advisor’s sample Policy Against Unlawful Harassment, Discrimination, and Retaliation.

The guidance also contains best practices for employers to avoid religion bias charges. For example, the EEOC says that employers can reduce the risk of religious harassment problems by doing the following:

  • Employers should have a well-publicized and consistently applied anti-harassment policy that covers religious harassment, explains what’s prohibited, includes procedures for bringing harassment to management’s attention, and assures that complainants will be protected against retaliation.
  • Employers should allow religious expression among employees to the same extent that they allow other types of personal expression that aren’t harassing or disruptive.
  • Once an employer is put on notice that an employee objects to religious conduct directed at him or her, the employer should take steps to end the conduct. It is important to note that even conduct that the employer doesn’t regard as abusive can become sufficiently severe or pervasive to affect the conditions of employment—and thus rise to the level of illegal harassment—if allowed to persist in the face of the employee’s objection.
  • If the harasser is a non-employee assigned by a contractor, the supervisor or other appropriate individual in the chain of command should initiate a meeting with the contractor regarding the harassment and demand that it cease, that appropriate disciplinary action be taken if it continues, and/or that a different individual be assigned by the contractor.
  • To prevent conflicts from escalating to the level of a legal violation, employers should immediately intervene when they become aware of abusive or insulting conduct, even when an employee has not yet complained.
  • Employers should encourage managers to intervene proactively and discuss with subordinates whether particular religious expression is welcome if the manager believes the expression might be construed as harassing to a reasonable person.
  • While supervisors are permitted to engage in certain religious expression, they should be counseled to avoid expression that might, due to their supervisory authority, reasonably be perceived by subordinates as coercive, even when not so intended.

We’ll have more details on the new guidance in an upcoming issue of the California Employer Advisor.

Preventing discrimination and harassment, whether based on religion, sex, disability, age, or other protected categories, requires solid policies and procedures that demonstrate your organization’s commitment to having a bias-free workplace and remedying problems that may occur. Our full library of downloadable policies, forms, and checklists—available exclusively to California Employer Advisor Online subscribers—has the information you need, when you need it.

Start today! Download our Discrimination Prevention Checklist and sample Policy Against Unlawful Harassment, Discrimination, and Retaliation.

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