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Boss’s Tip of the Week #40: Religion: How to Respect Established Practices

The Boss's Survival GuideHere is the latest installment of the Boss’s Tip of the Week.  This advice column for managers is brought to you by Bob Rosner and Allan Halcrow, co-authors of The Boss’s Survival Guide.

You’re forgiven if you’re confused. On the one hand, we want to know everything about the religious beliefs of our politicians. And we want them to have religious beliefs: A 2007 Newsweek poll found that 62% of registered voters would not vote for an atheist.

On the other hand, religion is a topic that we’re generally advised to avoid at cocktail parties – or at work. But although religious beliefs are among the least-discussed topics in the workplace, when they do come up they can affect everything from schedules and job duties to dress and appearance standards. Suddenly, what we weren’t talking about all is something we’re talking about in depositions. What’s the right thing to do?

Happily, managing this aspect of diversity is less complex than it seems. There’s really just one simple rule: Do your best to respect established religious practice. Here’s how:

Make a reasonable effort to accommodate a range of religious beliefs. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. That sounds broad enough to be intimidating, but over time, the Supreme Court and the EEOC have clarified what it means.

The Court first said that those who have an “orthodox belief in God” are clearly protected. Later, it expanded the definition to protect moral and ethical beliefs that have the function of a religion in someone’s life. This opened the door for the EEOC to state that the law’s protection is not limited to traditional religion and religious practices. For example, a teacher won a judgment against a school district after she argued successfully that she was fired because of her New Age beliefs.

Having said that, the law distinguishes between what a religion requires and what people simply prefer. For example, a former employee sued a department store after she was fired for going on a pilgrimage during the store’s busy holiday season. The employee lost the case because although she “felt called to go,” her religion didn’t require it and there were pilgrimages at other times that she could have attended.

In another case, an employer required its salespeople to live in the same area as their customers. A Jewish applicant was offered a sales job and accepted it. Later, he asked to move 40 miles away because the town had no Jewish community. The company denied his request, and he sued for religious discrimination. He lost the case because the Jewish faith doesn’t require living in a Jewish community, and he admitted that part of his motivation was to enroll his children in a better school district. The court found he simply preferred to live in a Jewish community.

The courts only ask that employers make a reasonable effort to accommodate religious beliefs; the courts specifically protect employers from undue hardship. As a manager, your job is to decide what’s “reasonable” when it comes to scheduling, job tasks, appearance, and so on. Obviously, this decision can’t and shouldn’t be made in a vacuum; the courts and the EEOC have provided the framework.

Don’t sacrifice business interests. No accommodation should imperil your business. For example, an employer working to meet a deadline hired welders to work at least 10-hour days, six days a week to finish the project. One welder sued after he was fired for refusing to work Saturdays on religious grounds. The employer won after proving that it had a shortage of welders and had been unable to hire welders for just one day per week. Short one welder, the company would have missed delivery on contracts that included penalties for being late. The court concluded that giving the man Saturdays off would be a hardship for the whole firm.

Don’t impinge on the rights of other employees. After being offered a job as a sheriff’s deputy, a woman told the department she was unable to work on her Sabbath. She withdrew her application and sued when she was told that she would have to work on those days. The department explained that work assignments were based on seniority. The woman lost her case because the court said that the department’s seniority system was fair and accommodating her would have impinged on the rights of other employees.

Explore the options. The law requires that you consider how to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs. A temporary Department of Agriculture border inspector sued when he didn’t get a regular position because his religion kept him from working Saturdays. The Department argued that giving him Saturdays off would burden his co-workers and complicate scheduling. The employee won because the Department had not considered any options, such as shift trading. The court also found that co-workers would not be burdened because the man was willing to work other undesirable shifts, relieving co-workers from having to do so. (Beware, however, that the decision might have been different if scheduling was influenced by a collective bargaining agreement or an established seniority system.)

Real Life Example

Sometimes, the best way to deal with a religious issue is on its own terms. Take, for example, the case of the farm workers and the devil. Several women who picked crops were asked to use the portable restroom facilities provided. For a time, they did, but then they began crossing the street to use the facilities at a neighboring gas station. That was dangerous, took them much longer, and angered the station owner. When they were asked why they weren’t using the restrooms provided, they explained that the devil was living in it. They knew this for a fact because they could see his boots while they were in the stalls. No amount of logic persuaded them that the devil was elsewhere. Finally, the manager decided to deal with the issue head on: he called a priest to perform an exorcism on the facility. Problem solved.

Boss’s Tip of the Week #40: Religion: How to Respect Established Practices
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