Legal

Halting the Rising Tide of Religious-Discrimination Claims

By Jon Hyman

Oct. 29, 2013

According to the Wall Street Journal, religious-discrimination claims are on the rise.

Companies big and small are being affected by the complex intermixing of work and faith. The trend toward a seven-day workweek sometimes treads on the Sabbath. Religious garb and grooming clash with dress codes. Job duties that intersect with changing public policies—for instance, issuing a marriage license to a gay couple—test some workers’ adherence to their religious beliefs.

While religious-discrimination claims only comprise a small portion of all charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, they have more than doubled over the past 15 years, growing at a rate faster than race or sex claims.

These claims are not going away. Indeed, a recent survey by the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, entitled,  “What American Workers Really Think About Religion,” concluded that religious discrimination is rampant in the American workplace.

Some the survey’s more eye-opening findings include:

  • Nearly half of non-Christians surveyed (49 percent) believe that their employers are ignoring their religious needs.
  • Employees in companies without religious diversity policies are almost twice as likely to be searching for another job as their counterparts in companies with policies.
  • Among American workers at companies where religious bias had been reported to managers or human resources, nearly one-third of workers report that the company took no actions to stop the bias.
  • Nearly six out of ten atheists (59 percent) believe that people look down on their beliefs, as do nearly one-third of non-Christian religious workers (31 percent) and white evangelical Protestants (32 percent).
  • Atheists (55 percent) are substantially more likely than workers in any other group to report that they themselves face a lot of discrimination today. Unlike white evangelical Protestants, however, atheists are also more likely than workers overall to believe that Muslims (66 percent), gay and lesbian people (63 percent), Hispanics (50 percent), and women (39 percent) experience a lot of discrimination.

What can you do to make your workplace religiously diverse and tolerant, so that you are not a target for these claims (also via the Tanenbaum Center)?

  1. Ask: When an employee comes to work in a turban, find out if this is due to a sincerely held religious belief. If so, you should try to accommodate (unless it causes too big of a burden).

  2. Respect Differences: Americans don’t know much about others’ religions. Tensions often arise around religious difference because of a lack of information or misinformation. If your employees need information to understand different faiths and to make co-workers feel welcome, make it available.

  3. Communicate: Do you have written policy on religious accommodation. The Tanenbaum Center suggests that the mere existence of a written policy on religion, in itself, reduces the perception of bias in the workplace. Of course, merely having a policy is never enough. You must communicate it to your employees and enforce it when the need arises.

  4. Think Outside the Box: When an employee requests a religious accommodation, think creatively about how to meet the needs of the employee and the needs of the company. Communication and compromise are key. Unless you talk, you cannot know what your employee needs and your employee cannot know what you’re willing to offer. In these circumstances, lack of communication (and not intentional discrimination) is the root cause of most lawsuits.

Written by Jon Hyman, a partner in the Labor & Employment group of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz. For more information, contact Hyman at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com. You can also follow Hyman on Twitter at @jonhyman.

Jon Hyman is a partner in the Employment & Labor practice at Wickens Herzer Panza. Contact Hyman at JHyman@Wickenslaw.com.

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