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Religion in the workplace – and how to prevent discrimination

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With Easter just around the corner, now is the ideal time to look at religion and belief in the workplace – and explore exactly what employers can do to prevent discrimination.

Diversity in all its various guises enriches a workforce, but to promote inclusivity, avoid misunderstandings, and stay within the law, it’s advisable to have a policy dealing specifically with religious matters at work.

If you’re not clear on the legislation and where your obligations lie, you run the risk of inadvertently discriminating against your employees.

The areas which cause most confusion for employers tend to be around dress code and time off work for religious holidays or prayer.

Employers are under no legal obligation to let staff take time out to pray at work but refusing an employee’s request for prayer breaks could be discriminatory.

To be fair to everyone, suggest that the employee takes a shorter lunch break, and if it doesn’t conflict with the needs of your business, try and find them a suitable place to pray.

Again, employers don’t by law have to provide staff with a designated prayer room, but if a quiet, clean space is available then you should allow it to be used for religious observance.

With regard to dress codes and appearance, it’s advisable that you familiarise yourself with the various religions many requirements. There are lots of rules, with the main ones concerning headgear, jewellery, tattoos, hair length and clothing which preserves women’s modesty.

In most cases, people can dress at work to conform with their religion’s teachings, but where this is not allowed, employers must be able to objectively justify their reasons.

For example, in most workplaces that require safety helmets to be worn, turban wearing Sikhs no longer have to wear a safety helmet. However employers still have to assess risk of injury and provide them with protective gear where appropriate.

Employees should also exercise discretion when organising work social events, award presentations and parties. Not everyone drinks alcohol – for many reasons as well as religious belief – so provide something alcohol‐free as well. Consider, too, alternatives to boozy gifts such as champagne when rewarding members of your team for workplace performance.

Also, where practicable, try to accommodate temporary adjustments to the working day – such as by letting an employee who is fasting start work later or earlier than their usual contracted hours.

Employers are not legally obliged to give employees time off to observe holy days and religious festivals, but it is good practice to grant their requests where business needs permit.

Similarly, try and allow for different religions’ treatment of death in your bereavement policy. Some faiths have longer mourning periods or require that funerals are held as soon as possible after death, so staff may request additional time off work.

When balancing the wishes of staff for religious reasons with your business’s operational requirements, you should always be consistent and tactful. You should also endeavour to extend this flexibility to other team members.

It is worth noting that under the Equality Act 2010 all protected beliefs are equal – whether religious or philosophical – so no one protected belief can override another. Everyone is entitled to follow or not follow a religion or faith, but no‐one has the right to impose their religious views on others. Doing so can constitute harassment.

To avoid any conflict, appoint a senior person to oversee matters of faith and compile an information pack featuring as many religions as possible. This useful resource should cover everything from dress code to dietary requirements and serve as a handy reference document for managers and other key staff.

By having clearly‐worded policies, and by doing your best to accommodate your workers’ needs, youcan help prevent any religious discrimination in your workplace.

Angela Clay

A qualified employment law solicitor and our managing director, Angela has unparalleled legal expertise and decades of experience and knowledge to draw from. She’s a passionate speaker and writer that loves to keep employers updated with upcoming changes to legislation, and is a regular guest speaker on BBC Leicester Radio.