Best Practices on Religiously Inclusive Workplaces

December 10, 2009 12:00 am

Balan Nur had worked for Alamo Rent-A-Car for two years, wearing a headscarf as part of her Islamic religious practice during Ramadan. But after 9/11, she was told that Alamo’s dress code prohibited head coverings, and she was subsequently fired for refusing to remove it. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission brought a suit on her behalf, alleging religious discrimination. Result: The court found in favor of Nur and eventually granted her more than $280,000 in damages. “No person should ever have to be forced to choose between her religion and her job,” Nur said.

It has long been accepted in the United States for Christians to wear a cross or for Jews to wear the Star of David in the workplace. Today, it has become common to see Muslim women wearing a hijab or Sikh men wearing the religiously mandated turban, or dastaar, at work. These are visible signs that our work-force demographics have changed and, in part due to immigration, religious expression in the workplace is a growing phenomenon.

Like Nur, there’s also an increased awareness of employee religious rights, ranging from time off for holidays to the various forms of religious expression and practices. Human-resources and diversity professionals know that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to grant “reasonable accommodations” for employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs and have traditionally reacted on a case-by-case basis. But proactive companies go beyond baseline requirements and encourage employees to bring their whole selves to work.

How? By creating an inclusive environment in which employees can integrate their mandated religious practices into their day-to-day jobs, companies build loyalty, raise morale and productivity and reduce one of the hidden costs of ignoring religious diversity: absenteeism.

Some complaints are perennial. Each year, for instance, thousands of employees file complaints or suits for religious discrimination because they can’t get the time they need for a religious observance. More bring hostile-work-environment charges. There are challenges managers can foresee and reduce through appropriate organizational policies and practices. There are also a number of issues that are beginning to emerge that may turn into full-blown problems if not actively handled. Let’s consider two and some ways of addressing them:

Discrimination Against Christians

Although the majority religion in the United States is Christianity, Christians can still feel like the minority. Jehovah’s Witnesses employees, for example, have sued after being penalized for refusing to participate in celebrations during Christmas or Halloween. In some workplaces, Christian employees have been prohibited from speaking with their colleagues about their faith or from listening to Christian music; others have been disciplined for including religious messages, such as “Have a blessed day,” in e-mail signatures or voice-mail greetings or for leaving religious literature in communal spaces.

But for many Christians, publicly expressing and sharing faith is an important part of their practice and a sincerely held religious belief or mandate. Companies that focus on creating religiously neutral work environments by requiring non-religious e-mail signatures or barring prayer groups can find themselves challenged.

The best response: Create clearly communicated boundaries, be they around e-mail signatures (all employees must follow the corporate standard, for instance) or religious expression (any continued religious discussion after a colleague has objected will be regarded as harassment). These policies will vary. One set of clear guidelines may be sufficient for smaller companies, while a decentralized multinational may need delineated policies tailored to the countries in which they operate.

Religious policies should also be backed up with training. An organization cannot assume that its policies and rationales are understood the same way by every employee, so an orientation of clear do’s and don’ts with periodic follow-up training ensures all employees are on the same page.

This way, if an employee violates company policy, managers have clear guidelines upon which to fall back. When this happens, it also gives the employer an opportunity to see whether its policies or training protocol were unclear, while further teaching the employee about the organization’s expectations.

Religious Beliefs and Sexual Orientation

Increasingly, interests clash when lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) employees work with coworkers and clients who sincerely believe that any form of non-heterosexual activity is religiously prohibited. When these tensions aren’t appropriately resolved, beliefs collide. There are numerous charges brought by LGBT employees who face discrimination in the workplace from religious supervisors and colleagues trying to “convert” them away from (what they believe to be) a sinful “lifestyle.” This is particularly problematic when the message comes from a company’s leadership. Gay marriage can also become an issue in the workplace: What happens when a religiously anti-LGBT employee refuses to attend a department party celebrating a colleague’s marriage? What if an HR professional refuses to process a same-sex couple’s benefits on religious grounds?

A clearly written employee policy and appropriate training is the best response. Employees have every right to their own religious beliefs. But what they don’t have the right to do is treat a client or coworker differently based on those beliefs. The employee policy needs to lay down basic guidelines requiring civility and respect in the workplace, as this is necessary for a productive work environment. Training should not only include the employer’s expectations but should explore why they are so important. Simply put, a workplace cannot accomplish its business goals if employees feel harassed, and employers stand to lose a great deal of business (and talent) when news that they discriminated against the LGBT community leaks out.

When we only see our differences—or worse, ignore them and expect everyone to act the same—it is more difficult for employees to work as a team. But when organizations create an accommodation mindset by taking the time to proactively set policy and offering appropriate resources and training, it generates loyalty among employees, eases tensions and improves collaboration and workplace effectiveness. Companies that have an accommodation mindset don’t wait until an employee brings up an issue or challenges policy. They take their religious diversity “temperature” to assess where they are now and project where they would like to be.

Proactively accommodate
Some issues are constants, such as wearing religious attire or the need for time off for observance. When employees receive accommodations, they’re often perceived as getting “special treatment.” Head this off by thinking through what policies will work for your organization, and make sure all employees know which accommodations are available—before they have to ask.

Schedule sensitively
Keep a calendar of religious holidays handy, and be sure it’s available to managers and supervisors. When scheduling important meetings or celebrations, make sure they’re during a time when everyone necessary can attend.

Handle the holidays
Official holidays in the United States are predominantly Christian, often forcing employees of other faiths to use vacation days to observe their holy days. Implement flexible holiday policies such as holiday-swapping or floating personal days to give all employees an equal opportunity to observe.

Create a quiet space
Employees of many faiths are required or may simply wish to pray during the workday. Create a quiet room, available to all employees, where they can pray, meditate or reflect in privacy and comfort.

Clarify the process
Employees are often uncomfortable asking for what they need. Make the process for requesting accommodations clear, train managers to respond to requests appropriately and make sure everyone knows HR is a resource.

Anticipate needs
Are you starting to see a new type of religious complaint in one of your offices or across all of them? Does one of the future trends mentioned here resonate with what you’re seeing in your organization?

A little anticipation, sensitivity and flexibility go a long way in retaining talented employees and creating a culture of inclusion and religious accommodation.

Georgette F. Bennett, Ph.D., is president of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding (, a secular, non-sectarian organization formed in 1992 that works to reduce violence in areas of armed conflict by supporting religious peacemakers and works to overcome religious intolerance in workplaces, healthcare settings and schools.