The EEOC has been taking a tough stance against unreasonable employer positions when it comes to religious discrimination in the workplace. Companies are facing huge lawsuits and reputational damage for refusing religious accommodations requests.
Taco Bell recently made the news for demanding that an employee cut his hair despite his belonging to a faith that did not allow it. Both Disney and Abercrombie & Fitch have been in the news in recent years for perceived bias against Muslim women because of the companies’ refusal to accommodate the wearing of the hijab. Whether or not these requests would cause a company undue hardship can sometimes be secondary to the negative publicity these cases generate.
Fear of the Unknown
“I think that’s why the EEOC has been taking such a hard look at some of these issues because there is this either real or perceived bias going on right now against Muslims and Muslim Americans,” says attorney Jonathon Hyman, who is a partner in the Labor & Employment Group at Kohrman Jackson & Krantz.
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Despite the media attention to religious dress, most accommodation requests revolve around scheduling and time off to coincide with prayer times and religious holidays.
“Time off is considered a reasonable accommodation unless … it presents or causes an undue hardship,” says Hyman. “Anything that causes more than a de minimis cost on an employer’s business operations is deemed to be an undue hardship for accommodating an employee’s religion or religious practice. So the time off is a reasonable accommodation,” he says.
However, if an employer would have to hire additional employees, pay other employees overtime or force employees to switch shifts, that would be an undue hardship, he points out. On the other hand, if employees voluntarily agreed to swap shifts, that would be an acceptable accommodation that an employer would be expected to provide.
Avoiding the Knee-Jerk Reaction
“A lot of these situations can be handled very easily, very inexpensively, very quickly and save a lot of problems down the road,” says Hyman. “A lot of companies have this knee-jerk reaction: ‘I don’t want to set a precedent, I don’t want to go out of my way to do something for x and then have to do something for y down the road’,” he says.
“Instead of looking for ways to not do things, I think it’s often easier for companies to try to find a way – if they can do so quickly, easily and cheaply – to make the accommodation, because they’re going to save themselves a lot of problems down the road.”
And being seen as an inclusive and progressive company that treats employees with respect can go a long way in the event that you do end up in court some day.