Religious disputes in the workplace have made a number of newspaper headlines of late. Solicitor Katie Holden outlines where employers stand in respect of the law and what steps they should take to ensure compliance.
Our increasingly multicultural society brings great diversity and benefits, but also challenges. Workplace religious disputes are regularly in the press - whether it's an employee wanting to wear an item of clothing or jewellery which is important to them as a sign of their faith, or more recently, reports of Royal Mail workers in Leeds requesting time off for Eid. Employers need to approach such requests sensitively and give proper consideration as to the policies they operate.
The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 were the regulations originally introduced to provide protection against discrimination in the workplace on grounds of religion or belief. These have now been repealed and were replaced on 1 October by provisions within the Equality Act, but the core rights remain the same.
The legislation is broadly drafted - direct and indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation are prohibited. It covers not only employees, but also job applicants, former employees and contract workers.
The legislation itself does not set out the particular issues that employers need to be aware of, but they do need to be familiar with areas of religious observance and practice which could have an impact on workplace issues. If not, employers will be at risk of claims of indirect discrimination. This is where a particular rule, such as a dress code, is applied equally to the entire workplace, but impacts on a particular group because of their beliefs.
For example, if no headwear is allowed, this adversely affects those required to wear a turban. The employer would then have to objectively justify the requirement, which may not always be easy.
The key for employers faced with religious- or belief-based requests is to consider each request individually and to have open and honest communication with the employee. As an employer, careful consideration needs to be given to operational issues, for example, if a request for time off for religious observance is made by a number of employees, then will the business be able to operate effectively during this period?
As an employer you need to find out exactly what they want the time off for - do not be afraid to ask questions and enter into dialogue about this. Employers should then consider their business requirements as well as commitments they have made to others who have made similar requests and decide whether it is practicable to allow the time off. If it is not, is there some way in which a compromise could be reached? Again, employers should not be afraid of discussing this with the employee concerned.
An employer can refuse a request if it can justify its decision. For example, there was a recent case involving British Airways concerning whether an employee had a right to wear a visible crucifix in breach of uniform policy. This raised interesting questions about whether the personal preference of a believer to wear a cross should be respected where there is no religious requirement to do so. In this case, British Airways was found not to have discriminated against the employee, but received a lot of negative publicity as a result.
In another case, a Muslim bilingual support worker in a school was told to remove her veil while teaching. The courts found the employer was justified in expecting this, as the instruction was to achieve a legitimate aim, that of providing the best quality education, and removing the veil was a proportionate means of achieving that aim.
â- As an employer, familiarise yourself with commonly practiced faiths to assist with planning and implementing policies and systems - ACAS provides useful guidance.
â- Where a policy or practice is potentially discriminatory, ensure the reasons behind it are carefully and clearly set out so it is clear what the aim is. Consult with the workforce on new policies to tease out potential issues early on.
â- Consider requests fully, communicate and consult with employees to try and reach an acceptable solution to all.