Religious discrimination in the workplace

Your employees may hold certain religious beliefs that impact on their work life

Discrimination on the ground of religion occurs when one person is treated less favourably than another on the ground that one has a different religious belief from the other. 

Respecting your employees’ religious beliefs has two principal benefits; it will promote diversity and maintain your organisation’s compliance with employment equality legislation

The vast majority of the Irish workforce will be members of the major organised religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. With ever more international workers making up the workforce, the prevalence of less well-known religions such as Scientology, Sikhism and atheism has increased.  Employment equality legislation requires you as an employer to respect the right of all your employees to practice their religion whether or not you agree with the religion in question. Read on to see how best to accommodate your employees’ religious beliefs.

Freedom to exercise religious belief in the workplace

Your employees enjoy the right to exercise their religious beliefs while at work. Your employees’ religious beliefs may require them in certain circumstances to violate certain company policies. By way of example: -

  • Muslim employees may prefer to grow a beard in breach of a company policy requiring male employees to be clean shaven
  • an employee who is a follower of a minority religion may require time off to attend religious festivals or ceremonies
  • Christian employees of certain faiths may not be permitted to work Sundays under their religious beliefs.

How to spot religious discrimination in the workplace

Discrimination on the ground of religion presents at all stages of the employment relationship from recruitment to retirement. Job advertisements, harassment by employees and dress codes are all risk areas that employers need to monitor to prevent allegations of religious discrimination arising.

For instance, employees may suffer religious discrimination in the following scenarios: -

  • direct discrimination, if an employer agrees to facilitate an employee with a particular religious belief and refuses to facilitate a similar request from another employee with a different religious belief, this may amount to direct discrimination.
  • indirect discrimination, if a particular item of clothing required by a specific religious group is prohibited under an employer’s dress code, this could give rise to a claim of indirect discrimination against the employer.
  • harassment, if employees of a particular religion suffer treatment that is unwelcome and could reasonably be regarded as offensive, humiliating or intimidating, the employer may face a claim for harassment from the aggrieved employee.
  • victimisation, if an employee is threatened, treated adversely or dismissed because they made a complaint of discrimination or assisted in the making of a complaint of discrimination the employer may face a claim of victimisation.

Preventing religious discrimination

The best way to prevent all types of discrimination is to promote an inclusive approach across your organisation. Inclusivity begins at recruitment; job advertisements should clarify that applications from people of all religious backgrounds are welcomed.

Remaining sensitive to the religious traditions of existing employees will also help to maintain an atmosphere of inclusivity. Remembering that the following work practices may affect employees with certain faiths is a strong start: -

  • serving alcohol and meat at work social events
  • a work roster that requires employees work Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays
  • activities that require physical contact with colleagues or sharing personal information
  • work schedules during religious festivals or fast periods

Many workplaces provide a dedicated prayer room for prayer or quiet contemplation. The provision of such a facility meets the needs of multiple religious disciplines.

Whatever the approach you decide to adopt it should be clearly communicated in your Equality Policy.  

Exemption

Under employment equality legislation certain religious, educational and medical institutions are exempt from the prohibition on discriminatory treatment on the religion ground. Certain employees or job applicants may receive favourable treatment if it is necessary to maintain the religious ethos and core values of the institution. Religious institutions are also permitted to reserve places on certain teaching and nursing courses if the education and health authorities deem it necessary to regulate the numbers of teachers and nurses.

Resolving incidences of discrimination

If an incident involving discrimination does arise, the following step plan will give the employee the best chance of successfully resolving the dispute: -

  1. Meet with the person whose behaviour is discriminatory or amounts to harassment and demand that it stop immediately – the perpetrators are often unaware that their behaviour is unacceptable.
  2. Ask a line manager to intervene.
  3. Instigate the company’s grievance procedure.
  4. Exhaust all appeal avenues under the company’s grievance procedure.
  5. Lodge a complaint with the Workplace Relations Commission

The employee is protected by all relevant employment legislation during all the outlined steps of the complaint resolution process.


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