Value System

You have to accommodate employees' "sincerely held" beliefs, religious or not.
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This story appears in the March 2002 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

In the weeks after September 11, Muslim women in hijab head scarves, bearded Sikhs in turbans and Arabic-looking people all across America reported harassment from fellow citizens who equated them with terrorists. According to the Washington, DC-based Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), Muslims had reported 226 incidents of physical assault or property damage by October 25 and 105 instances of discrimination in the workplace.

The president and other leaders urged Americans to remember that the problem was not Islam itself. Apparently that message made it through to some people. CAIR reported a surprising level of support for Muslim Americans from their co-workers--including many who have apologized for their initial outbursts. Being kind to people of different faiths is becoming the patriotic thing to do.

It's also the law. In Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the government prohibits employer discrimination against people because of their religion in hiring, promotion and firing, just as it does discrimination on the basis of race, sex, age or national origin. What's less well-known is that employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees' religious practices, unless doing so imposes undue hardship on the business.

Dress Code and Prayer Time

Normally, the issues will concern established religions. For example, your dress code forbids hats, but a Muslim woman says she must wear a head scarf to cover her hair. Your plant prohibits beards because employees need to wear close-fitting face masks, but a Sikh employee says his beard is part of his religion. Your store is open seven days a week, but an Orthodox Jewish manager can't work from sundown Friday through sundown Saturday.

You can accommodate most needs by making exceptions to the dress code, designating a place for prayer and allowing flexible scheduling.

Note that the law does not require you to offer accommodation if doing so would pose an undue hardship on your company. In a Louisiana case, when a Seventh Day Adventist working on an offshore drilling rig refused to work Saturdays, a court ruled that the employer was entitled to fire him. Because welders worked 10- to 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, scheduling every Saturday off for one welder would require hiring someone else to fill in. Likewise, if you have a bona fide seniority system, you're not required to violate it to allow lower seniority employees their pick of days off.

That's a Religion?

The law may also require your company to accommodate nonreligious beliefs. That's what happened when bus drivers for Orange County Transit Authority in California were told, as part of a promotion, to pass out coupons for free burgers. One driver refused, saying that doing so would conflict with his vegetarian beliefs. The driver offered several alternatives, including placing the coupons in a basket for passengers to pick up or working a desk job during the promotion. The transit authority ignored his ideas and fired him for insubordination.

The driver filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and a religious discrimination lawsuit under Title VII. After the EEOC ruled in favor of the driver, the case settled out of court for $50,000. The transit authority agreed to revise its manuals, accepting the EEOC definition of religion: sincerely held religious, moral or ethical beliefs.

This door swings both ways. If you sponsor New Age training programs to improve productivity through yoga, meditation or biofeedback, some employees may refuse to participate because of their religion. Whether you believe there's a religious basis for the objection, it counts as religious discrimination to require attendance.

It's up to the employee to inform you of the religious requirement and suggest accommodations. Ask for such requests in writing, treat the employee with unbiased respect, and do your best to work out a fair solution.

  • : The EEOC Web site summarizes the law in this area, as interpreted by the agency, and includes statistics on the growing number of complaints filed alleging religious discrimination.
  • : The New York City-based Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding promotes understanding and harmony between people of different religions. Its Web site includes publications, tips for managers on avoiding religious bias and links to other groups sharing the same goal.

Steven C. Bahls, dean of Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, teaches entrepreneurship law. Freelance writer Jane Easter Bahls specializes in business and legal topics.

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