Accommodating Religious Preferences in the Workplace: Best Practices
As the members of the 116th Congress were sworn in earlier this month, one Representative stood in violation of the 1837 House rule banning head coverings on the house floor. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a Muslim, is the first Congressional representative to wear a hijab. Later that same day, a rules change adopted by the House permitted religious head coverings on the floor, allowing Rep. Omar to wear her hijab without running afoul of House rules on a daily basis.
In fact, Congress had little choice but to accommodate Rep. Omar’s religious dress. Federal law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) requires that nearly all employers accommodate their employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs and practices, unless doing so would pose “undue hardship.” While courts have at times been unclear about what constitutes undue hardship, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) guidance regarding religious accommodations is quite broad. Allowing employees to wear religious head coverings at work is recognized by the EEOC as a “common religious accommodation.” (see eeoc.gov “What You Should Know About Workplace Accommodation.”) It is important to note, however, that employers need not make the same or similar accommodations for other employees expressing nonreligious preferences. The new House rule permits an exception for religious head coverings only, leaving the original ban on head coverings in place. Therefore, members of Congress may not properly claim that they must be allowed to sport baseball caps because others are permitted religious head dress.
While it is important not to run afoul of federal law, organizations looking to attract and retain a diverse workforce can and should follow best practices for the accommodation of religious preferences in the workplace. In striving to accommodate religious employees, employers can also begin to foster a positive workplace culture that attracts and retains employees, regardless of their religious beliefs and practices. Below, we outline several best practices for religious workplace accommodation.
- Have a written accommodations policy and make sure your Human Resources and management personnel are well-versed in Title VII workplace accommodation. In accordance with this policy, all company communications regarding religious accommodations requests should be documented in writing. The policy should also be provided to all employees, whether or not they request religious accommodations. It is important to note that the discomfort of customers or fellow employees which may be caused by religious accommodations does not constitute sufficient reason to remove the accommodation.
- Accompanying your written accommodations policy, your workplace should also have a written policy regarding the prevention of harassment or discrimination on the basis of religion. According to EEOC guidance, offense taken with regard to an employee’s actual or perceived religion is not a sufficient basis for reassignment or removal of the employee in question. (see eeoc.gov “What You Should Know About Workplace Accommodation.”) Rather, employees who fail to respect accommodations received by their coworkers, or who harass others on the basis of religion (or lack of religious belief), run afoul of Title VII. Having a written anti-harassment policy in place before problems arise can protect both the company and its employees.
- Whenever possible, designate specific spaces within the workplace for religious observance, such as facilities for ritual washing and prayer observance. For example, in 2007, Kansas City International Airport—not without controversy—added foot-washing basins to a restroom, allowing the airport to accommodate the religious practices of its many Muslim cabbies. While they could have continued to allow individuals to wash their feet in restroom sinks, this solution empowered taxi drivers, 70% of whom were Muslim, to observe their daily religious rituals in a more comfortable environment.
- Consider religious accommodations granted to employees when scheduling meetings or other events. A university administrator shared that among her staff were individuals who prayed at certain times of day as was their Muslim religious practice. Other employees, particularly women, read the Bible during their lunch break. Thus, meetings were not set at those two times in order to accommodate the staff. In the five years she led the unit, there were never complaints about co-workers’ religious practices.
- If at all possible, implement a flexible work time policy which can easily allow employees to keep religious observances without the need for continuous accommodations. The potential benefits to this type of policy extend far beyond those religious employees. Sodexo, an international hospitality company, has implemented a flexible work policy which, in the company’s opinion, allows for greater employee satisfaction and retention. If your workplace is unable to allow flexible work time, implement a policy that offers employees the opportunity to trade or share shifts. Either way, increased workplace flexibility will go a long way toward creating a desirable work environment which attracts and retains employees from diverse backgrounds.
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Best Practices for Eradicating Religious Discrimination in the Workplace. https://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/best_practices_religion.pdf
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, What You Should Know About Workplace Accommodation. https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/wysk/workplace_religious_accommodation.cfm