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Religion in the workplace

With suitable precautions in mind, religious differences in the workplace should be accommodated and even celebrated by employers

By Brian Kreissl 

Mention the duty to accommodate and most HR professionals immediately think of accommodating employees with disabilities. Indeed, it can be easy to forget the duty to accommodate can arise with respect to any protected ground under human rights legislation.

One of the most important grounds for accommodation is religion. This is certainly an area that causes a lot of hand-wringing, but what should employers actually do in meeting and exceeding their obligations in this regard? 

To begin with, religious accommodation normally includes at least the following types of modifications: 

  • Providing time off for religious holidays or time away from work to attend prayers.
  • Changing schedules to accommodate Sabbaths and holy days.
  • Providing breaks and prayer rooms (or at least a quiet place to pray).
  • Making changes to dress codes or uniforms.
  • Dealing with dietary restrictions by allowing menu options when food is served in the workplace.  

The above types of modifications can be thought of as the bare minimum with respect to accommodating religious differences. This can be done by consulting with employees and developing appropriate policies and programs. But in order to move beyond mere compliance with human rights legislation, it’s best not to think of the workplace as a “religion-free zone.” 

Effective diversity management involves celebrating and encouraging diversity, and religious diversity is no exception. Diversity can’t be celebrated if people are afraid to discuss their beliefs at work. It also becomes harder to accommodate individuals when they’re afraid to speak up about their religious beliefs and practices. 

We all have our own religious, philosophical and spiritual beliefs, even if we have little or no formal religious affiliation. In a free and democratic society, we should be able to share those beliefs, even in the workplace. We don’t leave our identities at home when we come to work, and our spirituality is part of who we are as individuals. 

However, we also need to be wary of trampling on the rights of others. Freedom of religion is never absolute. Remembering the following points can help employers as they accommodate and promote religious diversity: 

  • Freedom of religion includes freedom from religion. Some individuals will have little or no religious affiliation. They may be Atheists, Agnostics or Secular Humanists. Also, some people may not wish to take part in certain religious celebrations even if they are technically of that particular faith, and that’s perfectly acceptable.
      
  • Religion is a deeply personal thing. Just because most people of a certain faith will require specific accommodations doesn’t mean everyone will. There are different degrees of faith, and most religions have multiple sects. Never make assumptions about how someone may or may not practice their religion. Respect people’s privacy; they may not want to talk about their religious beliefs.
      
  • There’s a fine line between proselytizing and informing. While it’s healthy to encourage discussion of religious beliefs in the workplace, it’s not acceptable to have individuals attempting to convert other employees or preaching to others about certain aspects of their lifestyles being in conflict with their own religious beliefs. This applies especially with regard to other types of prohibited grounds of discrimination requiring accommodation (e.g., employees in same sex or common law relationships, people with drug or alcohol dependencies, etc.).
      
  • Avoid forcing employees to participate in activities with a religious theme. Rather than asking everyone to decorate their cubicles in a Christmas theme, it’s better to allow employees to put up decorations that reflect their own religious or ethnic backgrounds. In any case, no employee should ever be forced into such activities.
      
  • Certain festivals of a seemingly secular nature often have religious connotations. For example, holidays and festivals such as Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day and Valentine’s Day may seem like “harmless fun,” but some people will see those celebrations as being in conflict with their own religious beliefs.
      
  • Be sensitive towards the needs of employees with multi-faith families. For example, it’s perfectly legitimate for a Christian man to want to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with his Jewish wife and children.
      
  • Understand the duty to accommodate isn’t absolute. While employers have a duty to accommodate up to the point of undue hardship, this duty isn’t absolute. If accommodating an employee’s religion is likely to cause the organization legitimate and significant problems, it’s best to discuss the situation with an employment lawyer if you can’t come to an agreement with the employee concerned.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.

Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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