The separation of church and work

Religion is a fact of life in workplaces and employers have a duty to accommodate
By Suzanne McFarlane
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/11/2007

Money, politics and religion. Those are the three traditional taboos you’re not supposed to talk about. But the latter — religion — is a topic employers simply can’t ignore, both from a legal standpoint and in terms of finding the right talent.

With Canada’s multicultural workforce, and more immigrants arriving every day, employers have the opportunity to tap into an increasingly diverse talent pool. But with workers from so many backgrounds, and many different religions, questions arise: What happens when employers find themselves faced with requests to make accommodations for various religious practices? What role does religion play in the workplace?

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the public’s right to religion and religious expression. In addition, provincial human rights codes recognize the right to be free from discrimination on a number of grounds, including creed and religion. This protection from discrimination extends to employers, public service providers and educational institutions.

Hiring decisions should not be made based on a candidate’s faith, practice of religious observances or the need for accommodation based on that faith. Doing so contravenes human rights practices and the protection of the applicant. If religious accommodation is required, candidates should make their request clear on receipt of a conditional offer of employment.

The duty to accommodate religious practices is not discretionary and employers should approach this mandatory requirement with openness. After all, accommodation really means removing barriers that would otherwise prevent employees from performing their jobs optimally. When framed in the context of improving employee productivity, there is a strong business case for all types of accommodation in the workplace, including religion.

What exactly does the duty to accommodate employees’ religious practices entail? The following points highlight accommodation of religious practices in the workforce.

What is religious accommodation?

Religious accommodation includes an individual’s right to observe or engage in a religious practice of his faith. Typically, these accommodations take place in the form of time away from work. However, they might also include the provision of facilities (such as a prayer room) and the request that alternate arrangements for mandatory events be made due to religious conflict, such as the timing of annual team meetings.

The duty to accommodate

Employers are required to accommodate an employee to the point of “undue hardship.” Undue hardship is determined on a case-by-case basis, but the factors considered are: undue financial hardship, unmanageable disruption to the workforce and whether the health and safety of workers are endangered. Most employers should be able to manage religious accommodation without getting to the point of undue hardship.

There are a multitude of religions and faiths, not just the “major” ones such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Employers should approach accommodation requests in good faith and keep in mind that the protection provided against discrimination based on creed or religion applies to non-deistic faiths such as Aboriginal cultures and newer spiritual or “new age” faiths. The protection of creed also extends to personal religious beliefs, practices and observances provided they are sincerely held. It is not recommended that employers ask for “proof of membership” in a religion or faith.

Days off

All employees are entitled to paid time off equal to the number of Christian days recognized as statutory holidays in Canada. Usually, there are two (Good Friday and Christmas) or three (Easter Monday) days per year.

There is a difference between religious observance, which an employer should accommodate, and a time of cultural significance, which an employer may, but is not required to, accommodate.

A culturally significant time is one that is not tied to religion, but rather to an ethnic, demographic, national or historic observance. Examples include National Aboriginal Day, not based on faith but nonetheless an important day of celebration and recognition of Aboriginal peoples’ contributions in Canada. Chinese New Year is another example where, though culturally significant, the 15-day celebration within the global Chinese community is not housed within a religious context. If an employee requests time off during these occasions, it would be at the employer’s discretion, without obligation. However, an employer’s willingness to accommodate these kinds of cultural practices as part of a work-life balance initiative is likely to send a positive message.

Employee responsibility to request accommodation

An employer is not expected to know or assume what accommodation may be required for an employee. The responsibility rests on the employee requesting the accommodation. Employees should make their request in writing and be specific about what they’re looking for from the employer.

That being said, employers should certainly consider employees’ needs as they become sensitive to them. For instance, depending on the religious practices of employees, an employer may want to think twice about holding a celebratory lunch during Ramadan (a time of fasting for Muslims), planning company events on Friday nights (the start of the Sabbath for Jews and Seventh Day Adventists) or eating at restaurants that don’t offer menu options for everyone (such as vegetarian, Kosher or Hallal).

Raising awareness

Some employees may complain that accommodating the religious beliefs of others is unfair or unnecessary. Take advantage of such occasions to share information with co-workers, explaining the company’s policy towards accommodation and perhaps asking employees who are being accommodated to share information about certain aspects of their religion. Other employees should have the opportunity to ask questions so they can be better informed. Don’t look at these sessions as events to preach to employees, but to educate.

Remember, accommodations are provided in many ways to employees, whether through flexible work hours, home offices or ergonomic equipment. It is important to underline that good businesses strive to improve the productivity of their employees through accommodation. This is as true for religious accommodation as any other.

People managers and policy makers in particular need to see religious accommodation not as something that interferes with work, but as something that contributes to employee productivity and to greater work-life balance. In many cases, religion is not simply something people do or practice on a weekly basis, but is an integral part of who they are and how they choose to live their lives. As such, every request for accommodation should be taken seriously and seen as a way to improve employee engagement.

Suzanne McFarlane is the diversity sourcing specialist in Hewitt Associates’ Talent Acquisitions Solutions group in Toronto. She can be reached at suzanne.mcfarlane@hewitt.com.

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