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HUMAN RESOURCES

Are You Discriminating Based on Religion? You Might Be Surprised

The EEOC is targeting religious discrimination cases. Make sure you're compliant with the law before they come after you.

Very few people wake up in the morning and say, "I sure can't wait to break the law by discriminating against people on the basis of their religion!" But do you want a woman in a full burka , with everything but her eyes covered, sitting at your front desk welcoming customers to your business? What about if she just wears a head scarf?

Abercrombie and Fitch didn't want a woman in a head scarf working in their stores. It violated their "Look Policy," they said. After going through several lawsuits, they've changed their policy to allow for hijabs. In hindsight, they should have changed the policy before having to shell out large sums of money in a lawsuit. You want to do the same. Here are five things to need to think about that will help you do just that.

1. Make your rules around real business needs and not just on what you prefer. Everybody has to work every other weekend. Sounds fair, right? No one gets special treatment, and that seems fine on its surface. But when you hire someone whose religion requires them to attend church on Saturday or Sunday, it can run afoul of religious discrimination rules. In this scenario, think about what you really need: People at work every weekend. What do you not need? Specific people at work every weekend. While the alternating week policy is fine as long as everyone's religion allows it, it would be better to allow people to switch schedules. You may find that some people don't mind working the weekend anyway--either they could use the extra money, or need days off at other times.

2. Hold back on the knee-jerk reactions. When someone comes to you and asks for an exception, your first response should not be, "No," even if you think it's not really possible. Instead respond with, "Do you have any suggestions for how we can make that work?" Then listen. Give yourself some time to think, and maybe even consult with your attorney. Remember, the legal standard is "reasonable accommodation." If you just reflexively say no, you're not even attempting reasonableness.

3. Religious accommodations help you attract more employees. The last thing you need in a war for good talent is to eliminate entire groups of people in your recruiting. A new survey by the Tannenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding shows that employees who work for companies without religious discrimination policies are twice as likely to be looking for a new job as companies with such policies. Remember, turnover is more expensive than allowing someone a 15 minute break to pray.

4. Remember, the standard is "reasonable" accommodation, not "bend over backwards and go crazy" accommodation. You don't have to hire someone whose religion prohibits them from handling alcohol to work in your liquor store. However, it's pretty reasonable to allow a single employee to not stock the beer shelf in your huge grocery store--the cereal aisle also needs stocking, after all.

It's not reasonable for an event planner, whose primary job is planning weekend events, to have every Sunday off. It is a reasonable accommodation to allow one analyst to skip the last minute-project-finishing-marathon on Sunday in order to meet a huge deadline. When in doubt over reasonableness, check with your attorney.

5. Don't make holiday celebrations mandatory. Halloween is almost here, and everyone is going to be dressing up, except for Jane. She's such a party-pooper, right? Well, maybe she's just cranky, but maybe she's a Jehovah's Witness who doesn't celebrate, or an Evangelical Christian who thinks the holiday has too many pagan roots to be celebrated. Employment attorney Donna Ballman, points out that while you may be assuming bad attitude, the employee may be acting according to her religious beliefs. Holidays should be fun, not mandatory.

Remember, the number of EEOC claims in this area are growing quickly. The last thing you want is them knocking on your door. Better to be proactive and err on the side of caution than battle a lawsuit. As always, when in doubt, consult an attorney experienced in employment law.

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IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Oct 30, 2013

SUZANNE LUCAS | Columnist

Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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