Religious Accommodation in the Workplace

As you work to add diversity to your workforce, there may be times when when religious accommodation is requested. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits any discrimination based on an employee’s religion, and it also requires employers to “reasonably accommodate” religious beliefs, practices and observances. The U.S. Supreme Court has defined religious belief as “a belief that is both ‘religious’ in the employee’s own scheme of things and sincerely held by the employee”, but the law protects beyond traditional religions. So what is reasonable accommodation? Are all employers required to accommodate their employee’s religious needs? What are common methods of religious accommodation in the workplace?

Reasonable Accommodation

The law requires employers to accommodate to religious beliefs unless it causes an “undue hardship” on the employer’s business. Undue hardship is an action requiring significant difficulty or expense. If the accommodation requires more than ordinary administrative costs, affects the efficiency of other jobs, affects other employees’ rights or benefits,or impairs workplace safety, then the employer can communicate that to the employee and come up with a solution together. 

When a religious accommodation is requested, you should discuss the options with the employee. Requested accommodations can vary. An employee may need a specific day off for a religious holiday, their religion might force them to refrain from work on their Sabbath, some employees may need to wear a religious garments, or others may need a place to pray during the day. These are all reasonable accommodations that most employers have no trouble providing. When considering any accommodations, be sure to evaluate any impact it would have on the company and other employees. Then determine whether it fully accommodates the needs for the employee. 

Who is Required to Accommodate Religious Needs

The law only applies to companies with more than 15 employees, but some states protect employees who work for smaller companies. Make sure you research whether or not those laws apply to your company. Not only will you be in compliance with the law, but accommodating to religious needs will encourage your employees to speak positively about your company and ultimately improve employee morale. 

Common Methods of Religious Accommodation

Work Schedules: Employers may be able to accommodate an employee by having flexibility in their work schedules - giving them optional holidays, flexible breaks, and other means to enable employees to make up any time lost due to religious practices. Another method is allowing employees to switch or take over other employees’ work shifts. 

Dress Code/Grooming Policies: Most companies have an established dress code and grooming policy that all employees must follow. If the dress code or grooming policy conflicts with an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, this employee may ask for an accommodation. Examples of religious grooming practices are not shaving, or cutting their hair. Religious dress may include specific clothes, head or face coverings, or other items. Some courts have come to the conclusion that if an employer was required to accommodate a religious dress or grooming practice that conflicts with the public image the company wants to convey to customers, then that would be considered as undue hardship. 

Praying: Sometimes an employee may ask to use a workplace facility as a reasonable accommodation, like using a quiet room for prayer during break time. If this is the case, the employer should accommodate the request unless it would pose an undue hardship. However, it’s important to note that priority is given to the company for use of such spaces if over the employee if there are no other rooms available.