There’s an easy way to reduce workplace discrimination and foster an atmosphere of inclusion and acceptance of religious differences. But so many employers and managers overlook this simple strategy that it often doesn’t get a chance to work.
It’s called talking to employees and, according to attorney Jonathan Hyman, avoiding it is the biggest mistake employers make when dealing with religious accommodation requests.
“I think 99 per cent of businesses don’t set out to intentionally discriminate against employees,” he says. “I think the mistakes that employers make are, number one, being ignorant about the employee’s religious issues and, number two, not taking the time or the steps to correct that ignorance by having a dialogue with the employee about the need for the accommodation, why the accommodation is necessary and then how do we make this accommodation without causing too much of a disruption of our business.”
Take Time to Understand
Communication becomes even more important when the employee is a member of a fringe or little-known religion. But just because an employer has limited knowledge of a religion doesn’t mean the employee isn’t sincerely committed to it, and it doesn’t mean the courts don’t expect reasonable accommodations to be granted.
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You also need to determine the employee’s sincerity and commitment to the religion. “If it’s not a sincerely held religious belief the analysis ends there,” says Hyman. But if the employee is sincere, he contends that you should look seriously into how you can make the accommodation.
While requests for accommodations don’t have to be in writing, Hyman advises that employers ensure all requests are documented, as a best practice.
“It makes sense for the employer to at least document the request and put in the employee’s personnel file,” says Hyman. “So if there was a dispute down the road, the employer would be able to say: ‘We have a standard practice of documenting any oral requests for accommodations. Here is our history of doing this, and here is how we did it for this employee’.”
It also helps to show a pattern of documenting oral requests so you can dispute any claim that an oral request was made and never acknowledged.
Fostering an Inclusive Atmosphere
Building an inclusive culture in the workplace takes commitment and buy-in from everyone, but it can be achieved by following some basic guidelines.
Ensure your workplace looks diverse by hiring staff from various groups. “Seeing different genders, different colors, different religions, different backgrounds, sends a message that we are a workplace of inclusion,” says Hyman.
Develop a track record of making reasonable accommodations when requested. Employees should feel confident that their requests will be taken seriously, and that the company is flexible and understanding of religious requirements.
Have a policy that sets out that you are an equal opportunity employer, that you encourage diversity and that you’ll make reasonable accommodations when asked. Provide training on the policy so that all employees understand it and all supervisors know how to implement it.
Back it Up With Action
“But the piece of paper is only as good as the piece of paper,” says Hyman. “If you have a piece of paper that says we encourage diversity and foster equality but then 95 per cent of employees are white men, what does that say about your policy? As with most things, what you do is a lot more important than what you say.”