HR, Equality and Religious Diversity – Part Two

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Last month we looked at some of the many issues associated with religion and belief in the workplace. This month, we continue to consider time off for prayer, uniform and dress codes, special dietary requirements including fasting, training and work-related events and bereavement. Prayer It is necessary for followers of some religions to pray at times during their working day and it is vital that employers consider each request on an individual basis and be sensitive to the situation. Employers are under no legal obligation to provide a room for prayer but providing a quiet room somewhere would demonstrate your willingness to respect the religious beliefs of employees and allow them to practice their faith as easily as possible. However, it is accepted and understood that it may not be possible for a small business to provide a room for this purpose. It is also important not to disadvantage other employees and so a "quiet room" as opposed to a "prayer room" could be used by all staff who require a space for prayer, meditation or quiet thinking and shows a workplace that is inclusive of all. Always consult with your employees before setting up a quiet room to understand their individual views and requirements. Prayer is approached in different ways by different religions. For example, some religions require their followers to pray facing a certain direction, some sitting, others kneeling and some require certain days/periods such as Friday prayers and Ramadan for Muslims. Establish ground rules around the use of the quiet room, may be in conjunction with a user group. Do not allow the permanent display of religious symbols and prohibit the consumption of food, mobile phones or sleeping in the room. If it’s not possible to provide a designated room, consider whether employees could book a meeting room at certain times of the day. Consult with local inter-faith groups to ensure you have considered everything. Uniform and Dress Codes It is generally accepted that the wearing of a particular form of religious dress and symbols can be an important expression of an employee’s religious identify. Employers that have a dress code or provide a uniform could potentially discriminate against employees of a particular religion. Consultation with your workforce is key to determine whether parts of the Company’s dress code or uniform could impact on certain individuals. Always consider modifications where possible, whilst still achieving your business aims. Wearing a cross, head scarf or turban is unlikely to affect an employee’s ability to carry out their job unless there is some kind of health and safety risk. However, where there are health and safety concerns, look for acceptable modifications. Dress standards will vary depending on the needs of the business and standards of acceptability are interpreted differently. "Smart business attire" could be interpreted in a multitude of ways by employees of different backgrounds or ages. It might be helpful to stipulate exactly what is not acceptable. For example, "Employees are not permitted to wear jeans and trainers in customer-facing roles." If you provide uniforms, consider whether or not adaptations can be made. Dietary Requirements Some religions stipulate that particular foods must not be eaten. For example, Muslims do not have any contact with pork, Hindus do not eat beef and some forbid the consumption of alcohol. It is therefore essential that consideration be given to these issues when holding work-related events and providing food in the workplace. As before, consultation with your employees is essential to ensure that you fully understand their dietary needs and avoid making any assumptions about dietary requirements. Some faiths require their observers to fast for a period of time each year or on certain occasions. For example, Muslims fast during Ramadan and are not permitted to eat between sunrise and sunset. Employers should therefore whether or not a working lunch would be appropriate during this period if Muslim employees are involved. Consider whether a temporary change of working hours may be possible. Make no assumptions – ask employees to tell you their needs. If you are arranging a Company event such as a barbeque, make sure the date avoids significant religious festivals and fasting periods. If you are sending an employee on a training course, send out a pre-course questionnaire with a question on dietary and other needs. You are not required to meet all needs but should strive to accommodate them wherever possible. Bereavement Practices in respect of bereavement vary. For example, some religions require burial to take place almost immediately after death, some require a long period of mourning for a close relative such as a 13-day period of mourning for Hindus. Employers should seek to support employees in these circumstances by agreeing to annual leave at short notice. You may need to consider offering a period of unpaid leave if an employee has insufficient holiday entitlement to enable them to take holiday at such a time. General The key to handling these issues is to openly consult with your employees to ensure that you are able to take their needs into account before making any decisions and to seek professional advice if necessary.

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