Employers should be careful when confronting requests for religious
accommodation, or situations where accommodation is a suggested personnel
action. Religion has often taken a back seat to the more "happening"
categories such as race, sex, sexual harassment, and disability. Seminars
rarely put religion at the top of the agenda. But this relegation is
unfortunate. Consider these items:
1. The volume of religious discrimination charges at the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is increasing at a rate faster than any other charge filing.
2. The Workplace Religious Freedom Act, a bill now pending in Congress, would impose a greater obligation on employers to accommodate employees' religious practices and beliefs.
3. The conflict between diversity and religion in the workplace is causing problems. Some believers are very disturbed by gay rights and seek to express their concerns at the office, citing scripture and even posting biblical passages to this end. There are cases that with varying degrees of success strike a balance between diversity - that embraces gays as part of the rainbow of humanity in the workplace - and fundamentalist employees who are convinced homosexuality is sinful and should not be given any deference under the banner of diversity.
4. Also on this point, Christian groups have sought to be included in diversity programs at work but only some employers are willing to approve of their inclusion. As discussed last week on this site, it depends on how an employer defines "diversity" and whether it is consistent with this definition.
A few basics on accommodation:
The law currently imposes a lighter duty to accommodate in religion situations than with disabilities accommodations. The law expects bilateral cooperation between you and the worker. If the worker is rigid or otherwise uncooperative about scheduling issues, for example, your duty is relaxed even further.
The courts typically take the employee's side if an employer unreasonably denies religious holiday time off, or disciplines an employee for taking a religious holiday.
The courts do not rule the same way if the employee seeks to take off a particular day of the week. You are entitled to weigh the impact of this special scheduling on other employees, on seniority, and on productivity.
At the time of hire, avoid "any problem with you working on Saturdays or Sundays?" Instead, ask: "Are you available any day of the week?"