HR, Equality and Religious Diversity – Part One

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There are many issues associated with religion and belief in the workplace and issues must be addressed fairly and with sensitivity whilst supporting the needs of the business. Religion and belief are complex subjects that can sometimes evoke strong feelings. Faith is not always about religious observance, but extends to the way people live, including how they act at work. An employee may request abstinence from a task because it conflicts with their religious belief or might be unable to work on certain days or conform to a dress code because of their religion or belief. It is important that employers balance the needs of the individual employee with those of the business, whilst seeking to achieve a balance between making reasonable adjustments for that employee and ensuring that this doesn’t amount to less favourable treatment of employees who don’t follow a religion or have a belief. Showing sensitivity to the cultural and religious needs of employees can reap rewards in terms of a positive effect on the bottom of the business in several ways:
  • A business that respects the religions and beliefs of its employees is likely to be considered by employees and potential candidates as an employer of choice. This gives the employer access to a large talent pool.

  • When staff feel respected and valued they are more likely to be productive and motivated. Unfair discrimination prevents people from performing to the best of their abilities and is wasteful of an organisation’s key resource: its people.

  • Employees who feel that their employer respects their faith are likely to be more engaged, which can have a positive effect on retention.

  • Fair employment practices, effective service delivery and excellent customer care are inextricably linked: a respected workforce is more likely to show respect for how the business operates and whether or not service users, clients and customers are satisfied.

  • A workforce that includes people of different faiths and beliefs brings different perspectives, knowledge and insights to the business, which can benefit employers that operate in multi-cultural, multi-faith and global communities and markets. This can enable the business to understand diverse customer needs and new business opportunities and to design and deliver responsive services and products.

  • Making reasonable adjustments for religion and belief can benefit a wider group of employees, by creating a more inclusive workplace though more transparent and flexible working practices.
The workplace issues that most commonly arise in connection with religion and belief include time off for observance of religious festivals and significant religious events, flexible working, facilities for prayer, uniform and dress codes, and perceived conflict between work duties and religious observance. Within different religions there are different sects with different rituals, practices, traditions and laws. Religious observance is open to different interpretations and adherence is on a spectrum. Therefore a “one size fits all” approach is unsuitable and employers should handle cases on an individual basis. Make sure that you know about the key customs of the major religions and develop policies and procedures that are sensitive to the needs of your employees. There is no automatic right to time off for religious reasons, but you should be sensitive to the needs of your employees and accommodate requests for annual leave to cover religious occasions where it is reasonable to do so. Give careful consideration to requests for time off and refuse requests only where there is a legitimate business need that can be objectively justified. Your ability to accommodate a request for time off for religious observance may depend on the size and nature of the business. For example, a retailer with three employees is less likely to be able to accommodate a request for time off in the run-up to Christmas than one with over 200 employees, which is more likely to be able to find staff to cover a period of time off. Where a number of employees request the same period of time off to observe a religious festival, you could consult with all of the members of staff who have requested the time off, explaining operational requirements and engaging them to find a mutually acceptable solution. Arrangements that employers have used to overcome this difficulty include holding a ballot and asking the members of staff to work out a rota between themselves. You should make clear that you have the final say, but an open dialogue can help to build trust among employees. If your annual leave arrangements prescribe that employees must take part of their annual leave on public or bank holidays, you may find that some employees prefer to work on these days and take time off for another religious festival. Consider whether or not such shutdowns are essential. If they are not, it may be feasible to allow individuals to work on these days. Establish clear procedures for employees who wish to request time off and apply the procedures consistently, regardless of the reason for requesting time off. It is good practice to ask employees to make requests in writing so that you can consider each request and formally respond. You should be able to deal properly with requests for time off by having clear policies, consulting with employees, considering requests on an individual basis, being flexible, and, if refusing a request, explaining why. Next month, we’ll look at time off for prayer, uniform and dress codes, special dietary requirements including fasting, training and work-related events and bereavement.

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