Employers are deeply aware of the need for disability accommodation in the workforce. But there’s much less awareness around the obligation to provide religious accommodations at work, or what that entails for their business.
“Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on various criteria, one of which is religion,” says Robert Bird, professor of business law at the University of Connecticut’s School of Business. “In addition to the anti-discrimination provision, it requires that employers make certain accommodations to employees with sincerely held religious beliefs or practices.”
The law defines religion very broadly: The belief doesn’t have to be of a mainstream religion to trigger the accommodation requirement, but it does have to be based on religious philosophy. Secular, social, or political beliefs are not accommodated under Title VII. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides guidance for complying with Title VII's religious accommodation requirement, as well as additional terms and definitions.
Here’s what you need to know about accommodating employees’ religious beliefs and practices at your company.
Prepare for Religious Accommodations at Work
There can be many types of requests for religious accommodation. Some common accommodations include adjusting schedules to allow time off for religious observances on specific days, accommodating prayer time during the day, creating a physical space for prayer, job reassignments, and allowing accommodations for facial hair and head coverings.
Companies are not obligated to fulfill religious accommodations if they pose an undue hardship on the employer. The threshold to prove undue hardship is defined by the Supreme Court as “more than a de minimus, ” or out-of-the-ordinary expense. There has been movement to elevate the threshold to the same level as the Americans With Disabilities Act’s definition of undue hardship: “an action requiring significant difficulty or expense.” In January 2023 SCOTUS agreed to hear a case to determine if the current de miminus threshold should endure.
Similarly, employers are not required to fulfill requests that might put the rest of the workforce at risk. Some employees’ refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine is a topic of debate that will likely play out in court. Consult your legal counsel to determine the right balance between accommodating religious beliefs and protecting workforce health and safety.
Retaliation against an employee for requesting religious accommodation constitutes religious discrimination under Title VII and EEOC regulations. If an employee requests not to work on Sundays, for example, and the manager reacts by giving that employee bad shifts the rest of the week, the employee could have a discrimination claim against the company.
To prevent this from occurring in your workforce, HR must train managers on how to handle requests properly and with compliance. Increased education can create a more welcoming and respectful environment for employees of all beliefs.
Create a Supportive Culture
Employees may not feel safe coming forward to request religious accommodation on their own. A Muslim employee in a predominantly Christian workforce, for example, may fear retaliation for making a religious accommodation request.
The best way to arrive at religious accommodations that work for the employee while posing minimal costs or hardships to the employer is simply to open an interactive process and dialogue, Bird says. Proactively ask about accommodations and how to best support employees’ religious needs.
Develop messaging that makes it clear that HR is happy to accommodate religious beliefs and practices in the workplace. Consider adding more inclusive observance dates to your general calendar, suggests Linda Cohen, a consultant, author and speaker at Linda Cohen Consulting. This calendar, for example, includes specific religious holidays from several international religions.
“Even if you don’t know if you have any employees who observe these holidays, recognizing them on your company calendar shows one more way you are acknowledging that our world has diversity in it,” Cohen says. “And if you do have people within your organization who observe these days, your employees can support and honor each other knowing this information.”
Creating an open and respectful environment facilitates better communication and planning, too. If you have Muslim employees who will be observing Ramadan, you can plan ahead to make sure they have lighter workloads or more flexible hours on days when they’re fasting.
Be Open to New Ideas
Employees are not required to provide proof of their beliefs when requesting an accommodation. Generally, employers should assume that the employee’s request is in earnest and based on a sincerely held belief.
If there is a reason to suspect an employee’s motives on an objective basis (such as past behaviors inconsistent with their professed beliefs), the employer can make a limited inquiry by collecting more information from the employee.
It’s important for company culture and morale that employers do their best to accommodate the religious beliefs and practices of employees. When accommodation requests aren’t met, employees may feel alienated or discriminated against. But successful accommodations can become a retention tool and increase employee loyalty.
“In the long term,” Bird says, “accommodating these requests thoughtfully and carefully, in an environment of mutual respect, benefits the organization.”
Check out Berkshire’s Accommodations 101 webinar on-demand for more information.