John Anderson applies for a job and is a devout Morman. Although he has good qualifications he brings up his religion twice during the interview process, first when asked about outside organizations to which he gives time and second when he mentions his last employer’s company culture, particularly the drinking at beer Fridays, made him feel uncomfortable given his religious tenants.
Although your company’s management team has nothing against any religion, you decide not to hire John as he brought up religion twice. Did you make a mistake?
Your office manager is everyone’s mom. When employees have rough times, they seek out “Alice” and she comforts them and tells them she’ll pray for them. Although Alice does this behind closed doors, everyone knows when it happens. Do you need to ask Alice to do her consoling after hours?
One of your managers, a born-again Christian, wears cross earrings. You know this makes a few of her employees uneasy because they’ve told you about it. They say that they’re spiritual but not religious. Do you need to ask your manager to leave her earrings at home?
Managers and employees want to be whole people at work and for many that includes being openly religious. Many large companies embrace this. Ford and Xerox sponsor spiritual retreats to spark creativity. Multiple businesses include Christian symbols and Bible verses on company advertising. Chick-fil-A closes on Sundays to honor the Sabbath and dedicates each new store to “God’s glory.”
What traps does this have for employers, particularly as religious discrimination charges filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) increased by 87 percent in the last decade?
The Civil Rights of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against employees or applicants because of their religion when making hiring, firing or other employment-related decisions. Employers cannot force an employee to participate in a religious activity, nor prevent an employee from participating in a religious activity. This means employers need to reasonably accommodate to their employees’ sincerely-held religious practices unless doing so would create an undue hardship for the employer. This might involve flexible scheduling, job reassignments or modifications of grooming requirements. In one recent example, the EEOC required United Parcel Service (UPS) to pay $23,500 to an employee after UPS forced the employee to work past sundown on his Sabbath.
According to EEOC Office of Legal Counsel senior attorney advisor Jeanne Goldberg, private employers may discuss religion in the workplace unless employees say it’s unwelcome, as protections extend to those who profess no religious beliefs. Similarly, offensive comments about an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, or lack of belief, constitute illegal harassment if frequent or so severe that they create a hostile, offensive work environment.”
Companies that want to walk the fine balance between allowing religious expression and not creating offense for those uncomfortable with religion can do the following:
- Allow religious expression among employees to the same extent that they allow other types of personal expression. For example, a group of employees might request the chance to have prayer time in the coffee room at break time. At the same time, if company managers start staff meetings with a group prayer, individuals who don’t want to participate need to be allowed to bow out without negative repercussions.
- Provide a publicized, consistently applied anti-harassment policy that covers religious harassment and describes procedures and multiple avenues for bringing issues to management’s attention and assures employees that the company protects complainants against retaliation.
In the initial three scenarios, management erred when turning down John. Although they may have feared he would bring religion up too much in the workplace, they penalized him when he gave relevant answers to questions they asked. Because employees seek out Alice, she can console employees on work time. As long as your manager treats all employees fairly, she can wear cross earrings – to ask her to leave them at home would allow her to inhibit her personal, heart-felt expression.