Surprisingly, religious discrimination has become a significant workplace problem

Thursday, February 5, 2015

QSR magazine observes that vigilant employers are on the lookout for age, disability, gender, and race discrimination in the workplace. However, many employers are much less familiar with matters pertaining to religious discrimination. Such complaints make up a small percentage of claims compared with other forms of discrimination. However, as New Jersey and its sister states become increasingly diverse, religious discrimination in the workplace is a growing problem.

There are four types of employment discrimination that relate to religion: (1) failure to accommodate employee beliefs in the workplace; (2) disparate treatment; (3) harassment due to religious beliefs; and (4) retaliation against an employee who attempts to invoke his or her religious rights. According to the author of the QSR magazine article, failure to accommodate makes up the largest subset of religious discrimination claims. One common type of religious accommodation issue that often arises in the workplace pertains to a company’s dress code.

The Society for Human Resource Management reports that an employer’s clothing and grooming rules and guidelines could constitute religious discrimination if exceptions are not made for the religious practices of employees. This is because employers covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 must make exceptions to their rules or preferences so applicants and employees can follow religiously required grooming and dress practices.

Examples of religious dress include wearing a Christian cross, a Muslim hijab (headscarf) or a Sikh turban. It would also include Pentecostal Christian or Orthodox Jewish women’s practice of not wearing pants or short skirts. Grooming practices include a Rastafarian’s dreadlocks, a Sikh’s uncut hair, or wearing Jewish payot (sidelocks).

Customer preference is no defense to a discrimination claim. For instance, an employee who deals directly with customers could not be unceremoniously shunted off to a storeroom because his or her dress or grooming habits happen to offend a customer. Shifting the employee to a non-customer service position would constitute discrimination by the employer.

According to the EEOC, an employer does not have to accommodate employee religious practices or beliefs if doing so would cause undue hardship to the employer. An undue hardship could occur if the accommodation was costly to the employer, compromised workplace safety, or decreased workplace efficiency. In addition, an undue hardship could exist if the accommodation required other employees to shoulder more than their typical share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.

Seeking accommodation

The EEOC states that if an employee or applicant needs a dress or grooming accommodation for religious reasons, he or she should notify the employer of the need. If the employer needs more information to make a well-informed decision, the employer and the employee should “engage in an interactive process” to discuss the matter fully.

As observed on the Monster.com website, it pays for an employee not to be combative in seeking accommodation. Without compromising beliefs, one seeking accommodation should emphasize that he or she is: (1) not trying to cause the employer hardship; (2) not out to convert anyone; and (3) will be able to continue to perform all duties required for the job.

Seek legal advice

If you feel that you are being discriminated or retaliated against due to your religious beliefs or practices, you should contact a New Jersey attorney experienced in handling employment discrimination cases.