Management

Caution: God at Work

Tread carefully when religious values enter the workplace.

November 01, 2010
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An applicant for a front-line position wears a religious head-covering. A longtime employee repeatedly shares views on salvation with a newcomer who seems uncomfortable with the conversations. Or a few employees request space to meet for prayer during the business day. Do you know what to do?
 
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits religious discrimination regardless of whether the views in question are mainstream or nontraditional—and even if they’re not recognized by any organized religion. That’s according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) new Compliance Manual on Religious Discrimination, issued July 22, 2008. These protections extend to those professing no religious beliefs.
 
Title VII covers credit unions with 15 or more employees. It also prohibits retaliation against individuals who oppose religious discrimination or who file or testify in support of a complaint.
 
Religious discrimination has two major categories:
 
1. Disparate treatment violates Title VII whether the difference is motivated by bias against or preference toward an applicant or employee due to religious beliefs, practices, or observances—or lack thereof.
 
2. Harassment violates Title VII when an employer requires or coerces employees to abandon, alter, or adopt a religious practice as a condition of employment. Or someone (such as a co-worker, member, or supervisor) subjects employees to unwelcome, religious-based statements or conduct so severe or pervasive that it constitutes a hostile work environment and there’s a basis for holding the employer liable.
 
Title VII also requires reasonably accommodating employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances, once on notice. Applicants or employees merely must provide enough information to raise awareness of a conflict between the religion and the application process or job duties.
 
Accommodation involves adjusting a neutral work rule that infringes on employees’ ability to practice their religion—so individuals aren’t forced to choose between their jobs and their religious convictions. The credit union must provide an accommodation so long as it doesn’t impose more than a minimal cost or burden on business operations.
 
The EEOC recommends establishing written, objective criteria for evaluating candidates for hire or promotion and applying those criteria consistently. In interviews, all applicants for a job or job category should answer the same questions that relate directly to the position. You can reduce religious discrimination claims by careful and timely recording of the accurate business reasons for disciplinary or performance-related actions and by explaining these reasons to affected employees.
 
EEOC also recommends having a well-publicized, consistently applied antiharassment policy covering religious harassment that:
  • Explains what’s prohibited;
  • Describes procedures for bringing harassment to management’s attention; and
  • Assures complainants the employer will protect them against retaliation.
The procedures should include a complaint mechanism offering multiple avenues for complaint; prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations; and prompt, appropriate corrective action.
 
Allow religious expression to the same extent you allow other types of personal expression. But never permit harassing and disruptive expression. Once you know employees object to religious conduct directed at them—even if it doesn’t seem abusive to others—take steps to end it. If members or other nonemployees are perpetrating harassment, take action to stop it.
 
To prevent conflicts from escalating to Title VII violations, immediately intervene when management learns of abusive or insulting conduct—even absent a complaint.
 
Train managers to intervene if there’s reason to believe others might view a religious expression as harassing. Supervisors must avoid expression that subordinates reasonably might perceive as coercive.
 
The compliance manual and related resources are on the EEOC’s Web site, eeoc.gov.
 
KAREN SAUL is of counsel at Farleigh Wada Witt, Portland, Ore. Her practice focuses on employment law.

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