HR needs to be proactive about religious accommodation

Employers that ignore religion run risk of unintentional discrimination

The growing need for HR practitioners to deal with the challenges of religious accommodation is the consequence of an increasingly diverse workforce. In order to effectively tackle these challenges, HR needs to think more proactively rather than simply responding ad hoc to legislation.

Organizations unaware of the diverse nature of religious practices and the need for religious accommodation may unintentionally generate discrimination claims. Employers can help avoid legal disruptions, and improve their image as an employer of choice, by maintaining careful awareness of evolving laws and jurisprudence, seeking legal advice and interpretation and proactively adapting workplace policies.

So what should organizations be asking and addressing in order to become more strategically responsive to this issue? Here are some questions to consider:

Does the diversity policy address religious accommodation?

Do dress codes permit modifications for religious beliefs?

Are there leave or time-off policies for religious observance?

Are there any accommodations for religious dietary ¬observance where meals are served to employees?

Are employees permitted areas or time for required prayers?

Does the company offer any special programs or publications regarding religious diversity and awareness?

Developing a relevant accommodation policy involves the consideration of five main issues:

meeting the requirements for legal compliance;

understanding the present and potential future demographics of the organization;

linking the relationship of accommodation strategies to business strategy and corporate values;

considering how the policy will be promulgated and communicated; and

deciding how the program will be developed and measured.

The best written policy is ineffective unless it is communicated and employees are trained to implement the directives. This involves education and the availability of relevant information at all levels of the organization. It includes not only knowledge and access to organizational policy and procedures but exposure to various religious beliefs and the expressions and practices flowing from those beliefs. It includes inculcation of attitudes, or at least expected behaviours such as respect, dignity and a willingness to seriously look at requests for religious accommodation.

Education should not be limited to training sessions. One type of ready reference about several Canadian faith groups that could be distributed in the workplace is an annual multicultural calendar, available in a variety of print and electronic versions. For example, the non-profit organization Creative Cultural Communications in Toronto publishes one and the Canadian Forces publishes Religions in Canada, a handbook of fundamental religious accommodation requirements of the 38 largest religions in Canada by population. There are others that can be sourced, adapted or developed for in-house use.

Employers and decision-makers must accommodate and investigate requests seriously, considering the source of the request, the rights and equality of others in the workplace, the effect on the business and the law. Advisors such as HR and legal staff must ensure the process is carried out correctly, and they may be called upon to think creatively in order to best meet accommodation needs. Failures along the way can result in the engagement of arbitration boards, tribunals and courts.

For some employees, achieving a balance between religion and work is of fundamental importance to personal well-being. A clear, carefully crafted and thoughtfully implemented religious accommodation policy can provide the tools necessary for individuals to reconcile religious values and practices with work objectives and responsibilities.

Mary Romanow is a lieutenant-colonel in the Canadian Forces, specializing in HR management. She received the Department of National Defence’s Leadership in Human Resources Management Award for her contributions to the development of an integrated human rights plan for the military. Len Karakowsky is an associate professor of management at York University, where he helped launch Canada’s first executive master’s degree program in human resource management.

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