Religious Discriminaton

First published on Thursday, Jun 04, 2020

Last updated on Friday, Jun 14, 2024

Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

As an employer you have a duty to foster an inclusive workplace that treats employees equally and equitably, regardless of religion, age, sex, gender identity and more. However, despite best efforts, many employees across Canada still face discrimination at work. One of the most common types of discrimination in employment is religious discrimination.

To ensure discriminatory practices based on religion are kept out of the workplace, employers must adopt policies, procedures, and practices to ensure all employees feel comfortable and safe.

In this guide, we’ll discuss what religious discrimination is, the different forms it can take, and how you can prevent it from happening in your workplace.

What is Discrimination Against Religion?

Discrimination against religion is when an employee is treated unfavorably because of their religious beliefs. Human rights laws not only protect individuals who belong to an organized religion such as Islam or Catholicism, but also those who have sincerely held religious, ethical, or moral beliefs.

Workplace religious discrimination applies at all points of employment, not just at the beginning or end. Provincial and federal human rights laws forbid religious discrimination when hiring, amongst other examples:

  • Advertising.
  • Pay.
  • Job and task assignments.
  • Promotions and growth opportunities.
  • Temporary layoffs.
  • Internal or external training.
  • Health, dental, and other benefits.
  • Firing.

How is Religion Defined?

According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, religion includes the practices, beliefs and observances that are part of a faith or religion. Religion does not include personal moral, ethical or political views.

It does not matter if the discrimination based on religious beliefs is intentional or not; all that matters is the effect the behaviour has on the individual experiencing the discrimination.

Employees are protected against religious discrimination by applicable human rights legislation. Each province has established their own human rights legislation. For example, human rights protections for provincially regulated employees in Ontario are provided under the Ontario Human Rights Code. Other provinces include:

  • The Human Rights Code of British Columbia.
  • The Alberta Human Rights Act.
  • The Human Rights Code of Manitoba.
  • The Saskatchewan Human Rights Code.

The Canadian Human Rights Act provides human rights protection from discrimination if you are a federally regulated workplace. Examples of these workplaces are:

  • Transport companies, for examples railways.
  • Television companies.
  • Broadcasting companies.

Human rights legislation, regardless of jurisdiction, states a number of different protected grounds that cannot be infringed upon in employment. The following protected grounds are included in all Canadian human rights legislation:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Race
  • Disability

Religion/creed is also included in all human rights legislation, making it illegal for employers to discriminate against or harass an employee due to their religious beliefs.

What are Examples of Religious Discrimination?

Some common religious discrimination examples include:

  • Not providing time off for employees to engage in religious holidays, leaves, ritual prayers, and Sabbath observances.
  • Penalizing or denying benefits or opportunities to an employee because of their religion.
  • Choosing not to hire or promote an individual due to their religion.
  • Relocating an employee to a different work station or position due to their religion (for example, moving an employee with a hijab to a non-client-facing role).
  • Enforcing workplace dress codes that do not account for religious exemptions.

Religious discrimination can occur in the above ways and can also include harassment. Under human rights and health and safety laws, employers have a duty to uphold a safe and healthy work environment, free from religious discrimination and harassment.

Harassment based on religious beliefs can take many forms, including:

  • Making offensive remarks about an individual’s religious beliefs, practices, or garb.
  • Posting or sending images that depict certain religions in a negative or offensive way.
  • Spreading rumors or gossiping about someone’s religious beliefs;
  • Engaging in jokes or comments that reinforce religious stereotypes; and,
  • Attempting to convert someone to a different religion or imposing different religious beliefs on someone.

Workplace religious discrimination and harassment can be perpetrated by anyone, including an employee’s manager or supervisor, coworkers, and clients or customers.

What are the Types of Religious Discrimination?

There are two main types of discrimination based on religious beliefs: direct and indirect. While direct religious discrimination is easier to spot, both types of religious discrimination are against the law.

Direct Discrimination

Direct religious discrimination is overt and can significantly affect the employee. An example of direct discrimination is choosing not to hire an individual due to their actual or perceived religious beliefs.

One way employers can work to avoid direct religious discrimination is by implementing a “blind” process for reviewing applicants (redacting applicant names, home addresses and other personal characteristics that could cause a bias in hiring).

Indirect Discrimination

This form of discrimination occurs when an employer discriminates against an employee due to their actual or perceived religious beliefs in a covert way that often goes unnoticed by others in the workplace.

A common instance of indirect religious discrimination is uniform or dress code policies that do not consider religious garb.

For example, if a business establishes a uniform or dress code policy that requires employees to wear hats (such as some flight attendants or fast-food workers), it may infringe upon the religious dress requirements of a Sikh man who wears a turban.

Employers must ensure all uniform and dress code policies state that exceptions and accommodations will be made for any employee who cannot comply with said policy due to religious reasons. If employers choose not to accommodate employees on the basis of religion, the likelihood of having a human rights claim filed against them increases.

How does Religious Discrimination Affect Someone?

Religious discrimination in the workplace has the ability to not only affect the individual experiencing the discrimination but can negatively impact the workplace as a whole. If someone encounters religious discrimination at any point in employment, they may experience:

  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Loss of productivity or interest in their job;
  • Anger toward the employer which may result in insubordination; and,
  • Low morale.

If religious discrimination in the workplace occurs and goes unchecked, it can have a major impact on the business. Some ways religious discrimination can hurt a business are:

  • Low staff morale and production rates.
  • An unhealthy or toxic workplace.
  • Loss of clients.
  • Reduced employee retention.
  • Workplace conflict.
  • Company brand and reputation damage.

It’s vital you are doing everything you can to prevent religious discrimination and accommodate religious beliefs. When issuing a religious exemption to a workplace policy or practice it is best practice to issue a religious accommodation letter to the employee and keep a copy on file to ensure you have proof that the request was granted.

What is a Religious Accommodation Letter?

A religious accommodation letter is when an employee requests changes to be made to their job to help with their religious requirements.

This letter should include how you are granting the employees’ accommodation request

How Can Employers Prevent Religious Discrimination?

You have the responsibility to ensure a healthy, safe, and inclusive workplace, free from discrimination because of an employee’s religion. Failure to do so can lead to you being held liable for these actions.

To help prevent religious discrimination in the workplace, employers should put in place the following strategies to address potential human rights violations.

Workplace Violence and Harassment Policy

Employers should put in place anti-discriminatory and anti-harassment policies that highlight in detail the employer’s commitment to a healthy, equal, and inclusive environment, which includes:

  • A list of prohibited grounds of discrimination following human rights legislation;
  • Definition of key terms such as “harassment” and “discrimination;”;
  • Description/examples of unacceptable behaviour;
  • Process of internal complaints will be handled;
  • Disciplinary measures that will be applied if a complaint of harassment or discrimination is proven; and,
  • Remedies that will be available if the complaint of harassment or discrimination is proven.

Employers should promote such policies to all employees about human rights matters including:

  • Provide training to all new employees.
  • Posting information on bulletin boards around the workplace.;
  • Keep any remote workers up to date with any changes you make to policies. ,
  • Continuity in education to promote an inclusive work environment.

Have a Plan to Handle Complaints

If an employee makes a complaint about experiencing religious discrimination, ensure that you have a plan to handle complaints, including any investigation and disciplinary measures taken, and that you follow through.

Also, inform the employee of the investigation and ensure that the investigation is confidential.

Get Advice on How to Address Religious Discrimination with BrightHR

As an employer, it is important to establish, maintain, and enforce policies to promote a healthy and inclusive workplace, free from discrimination and harassment.

If you fail to address or ignore situations of discrimination based on religious beliefs, you may be at risk of having a human rights claim filed against you, which could lead to you paying thousands of dollars in legal fees and payouts.

If you need assistance with drafting workplace violence and harassment policies and procedures, or even looking to update current ones, our BrightAdvice service allows you to receive quality advice on any employment issues you may have.

Contact us on 18882204924 or book a demo today.

Lucy Cobb

Employment Law Specialist

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