• The HR Specialist - Print Newsletter
  • HR Specialist: Employment Law
  • The HR LAW Weekly
  • The HR Weekly

Accommodating religion: What managers need to know


Say an applicant tells you she wouldn’t be able to work Friday nights due to her religion. Or an employee begins wearing a headscarf to the office. How would you respond?

The increasing religious diversity in the workforce is causing more managers to make legal mistakes. In fact, employee claims of religious discrimination in the workplace have doubled in the past decade.

The law

As a manager, you need to let employees express their religious beliefs while, at the same time, making sure those expressions don’t infringe on the rights of co-workers or the organization.

Federal anti-discrimination law—Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—makes it unlawful to discriminate against applicants or employees based on their religion.

The law says employers must “reasonably accommodate” an employee’s “sincerely held” religious practices unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship” on the employer. In most cases, such accommodations involve giving employees time off to attend religious services.

How to comply

Here’s what the law means to managers on a practical, day-by-day level:

  • Hiring and firing. You can’t treat app­licants or employees less (or more) favorably in hiring, firing or other job conditions because of their religious beliefs or practices.
  • Proselytizing. You can’t force em­­ployees to participate (or not participate) in a religious activity at work.
  • Accommodation. You must reasonably accommodate an employee’s “sincerely held” beliefs and practices.
  • Undue hardship. You can deny a religious accommodation request if it would create an “undue hardship” on the organization’s business interests. The EEOC defines “undue hardship” as something that: “requires more than ordinary administrative costs, diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees’ job rights or benefits (or) impairs workplace safety.”
  • Religious expression. You must allow employees’ religious expression if they’re allowed to engage in other personal expression at work, as long as the expression doesn’t impose an undue hardship on the company or infringe on the rights of co-workers or customers.
  • Religious harassment. You must take action and notify HR if you see or hear of an employee being harassed based on religious beliefs.

What’s a ‘religion’?

When it comes to workplace discrimination law, the courts say employers must view “religion” fairly broadly, accommodating everything from mainstream religious views down to those of small sects.

In fact, the EEOC specifically states that the size of the group the person belongs to is irrelevant to his or her right to be free of discrimination and harassment in the workplace. The same is true of workers who don’t adhere to any religion.

Employee requests Saturdays off to worship: What's a manager to say?

Let’s say a top employee refuses to work a company’s new mandated Saturday shift. His religion won’t allow it, he says, and he wants an accommodation.

How you listen and react when first approached about a religious accommodation sets the tone for a quick resolution. If you sit down with the employee and discuss the problem, there’s a good chance you can work something out. Even if there is no alternative, the employee would at least see your effort. Usually, that’s all an employee—or the courts—will ask.

Before you act, ask yourself these questions:

  • What are your required working hours?
  • Why is it essential that an employee work during those periods that his or her religious beliefs prohibit working?
  • Are there other qualified employees who would be willing to substitute during those periods? What additional costs would that require?
  • Are there reasons other than cost compelling you to refuse to accommodate?
  • How have you responded to other similar requests? (Courts will also look for consistency.)
  • Has the employee offered a possible accommodation to produce a compromise?