As an employer, you strive to maintain a certain image for the benefit of your small business, while simultaneously accommodating employees in order to promote company morale. But what do you do when an employee's religious practices conflict with workplace policies? Here's what you need to know about your legal responsibilities and how you can keep your workplace safe, efficient, and accommodating.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq protects employees from discrimination in the workplace based on sincerely held religious beliefs. Briefly, Title VII prohibits:
- Unfair treatment based on religion when it comes to hiring, training, benefits, promotions, and other aspects of employment;
- The denial of accommodation for "sincerely held" religious practices, unless those practices would result in "undue hardship" for the employer;
- Job segregation due to religion;
- Harassment as a result of religious beliefs;
- Retaliation toward the employee for requesting specific accommodations or for filing a discrimination charge.
So where does religious dress and grooming fit into Title VII? Basically, the law states that exceptions must be made for particular religious dress in workplace policies regarding appearance and grooming requirements, as long as it does not cause safety or legal concerns.
It all sounds good on paper, but how do you provide real solutions to religious practices in your day-to-day work life? Here are some ideas to help you provide an accommodating atmosphere for every individual in your company:
- Ask questions early. Not being aware of the religious requirements of an employee can lead to a discrimination lawsuit. Under Title VII, it's acceptable to ask employees enough questions to determine whether exceptions will need to be made to company policies due to religion. But, be careful how you ask those questions.
- Seek compromise. Find out if there is a way for an employee to abide by their religious requirements while adhering to company policy. For example, if your employee must wear his hair long due to religion, but he works around food, ask if he is able to pull his hair back in order to stay within food safety regulations.
- Make an exception when necessary. If there is no possible compromise and the religious requirement won't cause undue hardship for your business, then you must accommodate the employee. This sometimes means making an exception to company policy.
While it's important to provide accommodations for employees' religious requirements, there are times when that simply isn't possible. This is what Title VII considers an "undue hardship" for your business. For example, if an employee's religion requires the worker wear certain loose garments that pose a legitimate safety concern around certain machinery, no accommodation can be made if the employee's job requires that he or she work around that machinery.
It's important to remember, though, that you must be able to prove the religious accommodation would cause an actual hardship to your business. In an article on AllBusiness.com, Barrie Gross says it this way: "The employer must be able to prove that any accommodation would require more than ordinary business costs, diminish efficiency in other jobs, impair workplace safety, infringe on the rights and benefits of other employees, cause other co-workers to carry the burden of the accommodated employee's hazardous or burdensome work, or conflict with other laws and regulations."
Muddling through the legalities of religious accommodation and workplace policies can quickly become overwhelming. Your rights and responsibilities and the employees' rights and responsibilities can get jumbled when trying to determine the best way to accommodate an employee's beliefs while maintaining an efficient and safe work environment. Don't be afraid to seek advice from a human resources specialist when you need help.
Margaret Jacoby, SPHR, is the founder and president of MJ Management Solutions,a human resources consulting firm that provides small businesses with a wide range of virtual and onsite HR solutions to meet their immediate and long-term needs. From ensuring legal compliance to writing customized employee handbooks to conducting sexual harassment training, businesses depend on our expertise and cost-effective human resources services to help them thrive. This article first appeared on the MJ Management Solutions blog.