Americans are a religious people. Only 3.1 percent of American adults claim to be atheists. So, you'd think that, with almost everyone believing in God to some extent, religion would be a natural part of the work day. Except it isn't, generally. Some people got all sorts of uncomfortable when a businessman, Eric Little, posted a picture of his office Bible study group on the company LinkedIn and Facebook pages. An HR manger warned him that if the company disciplined an employee who wasn't part of the Bible study, it could face a religious discrimination lawsuit. Little responded,
Why would you guys assume attendance or non-attendance would have any impact whatsoever on any of my team? Do you think it's impossible for Christians to be tolerant, unbiased or fair? Why would you assume that we are not respectful to all beliefs, including atheists and agnostics?
Still, the HR manager is right to be nervous. Companies are required to provide reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs and they are required to treat employees equally, regardless of any one employee's or manager's religious belief. I absolutely believe that Little is correct--Christians can be tolerant, unbiased, and fair, as can people of all religions and no religion. But when you're disciplining employees, they will often grasp onto anything that makes them different and claim that the discipline was due not to a workplace error, but to this difference.
This is playing out in a very dramatic way in a small town in Colorado. A Cargill meat processing plant is staffed largely by Somali Muslims who wish accommodations to pray regularly. This hasn't been much of a problem, and Cargill accommodated them. But, then rumors started--saying that the policy was going to change. For three days, 150 Muslim workers didn't show up to work. Cargill fired them for not showing up.
Now, if I said, "John didn't show up to work for three days, so we fired him," you'd nod your head knowingly. Most companies have no-call-no-show termination policies. Three strikes and you're out, no questions asked.
But, if I changed that to "Mohammed got mad about a perceived change in prayer accommodations and didn't show up for three days," would you still think the same thing? Especially if the manager had a different religious belief? (For the record, I don't know the religious beliefs of the people who made this decision, but I'm guessing they aren't Muslim.)
Now, multiply that by 150 people who didn't show up and it's easy to see how you can start to see this as a religious issue instead of an attendance policy question. While the law requires a reasonable accommodation, it doesn't require an unreasonable accommodation. When you have one or two employees on a production line who need to step away to pray a couple time a day, it's a reasonable accommodation to allow that. When you have 500 who want to do the same thing at the same time, it's no longer reasonable for your production line to allow the accommodation.
In the same fashion, it's reasonable for a grocery store that is open 24/7 to allow a Christian employee to have Sundays off. It's not reasonable for an event planning company that does 95 percent of its business on Saturday and Sunday to allow a Christian employee to have Sundays off. Reasonability can vary from business to business and situation to situation.
So, what do you do when you're faced with a request for a religious accommodation?
Look for a reason to say yes.
Truly, most requests can accommodated, just as most disability requests can be accommodated. A Jewish employee who needs to leave before sundown on Friday can work more hours on Tuesdays during the winter. During the summer, it's not an issue. An employee who needs to wear special clothing can--unless they are going into an operating room.
Ask the employee for a solution.
You may think, when someone comes to you and says, "I'm [religion] and I need ...," that this person is going to come up with a big list. Most likely he or she will have one or two simple requests: I can't travel alone with a co-worker of the opposite gender, I need to wear this cross, I need to not be expected to check my email or do any work on Sunday. It's rather rare for a request to be terribly difficult to accommodate.
If there is no solution, tell the employee that and ask what you can do.
Explain to your employee, "I can't let all 500 Muslims pray at the same time. It will stop production. Is there something else that is reasonable?" Or, "We're an event planning company, and 95 percent of our work is on the weekend. I can't let you have Sundays off. Is there something else?" At the Cargill plant, people generally took turns praying (until this walk out). That's a solution. Your employee who can't work on Sunday may say, "Well, if I can go to church in the morning, I can work the afternoon shift." Solution.
Consult your attorney before terminating or issuing an absolutely-not edict.
If you can't come to an agreement, don't just kick the person out the door. Consult with your employment attorney to make sure you're following the law and there isn't another solution that neither of you is seeing. Your attorney has encountered this before (and if she hasn't, get a new law firm), and can guide you.