Employee requests for religious accommodation at work are not always handled appropriately, take for instance Ashanti McShan’s case.
Ashanti McShan, a 17-year old high-school student, was excited about her first day of work at Burger King. She had just been hired as a cashier at the fast food restaurant.
The hiring manager had assured her that her long, black skirt would be acceptable dress, as it was in conformance with her religious beliefs as a Pentacostal Christian.
When McShan showed up for orientation, her excitement soon turned to disappointment after the store manager told her that her skirt wasn’t suitable for the job. Instead, she would be required to wear the standard uniform pants.
McShan tried to explain to the store manager that when she’d interviewed for the position, she had been told otherwise. However, the response from the manager standing in front of her today was completely offensive. Instead of starting her new job, she was instructed to leave the store.
According to the EEOC complaint, when McShan tried to contact senior management, her calls went unreturned. Eventually, her employment was terminated.
McShan sued Burger King, claiming illegal discrimination on the basis of religion. (Burger King later settled for $25,000 and “other relief.”)
Where did the fast-food chain go wrong?
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (commonly referred to as “Title VII”), prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants or employees on the basis of religion and requires that employers provide accommodation for employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs unless the accommodation would be an undue hardship.
And while the law doesn’t require that employers grant the exact accommodation requested (the accommodation just needs to be “reasonable”) employers can’t summarily dismiss requests out of hand, either. Doing so is the quickest way for an employer to get into hot water, and it’s crummy employee relations, too.
Here are some tips for responding to requests the right way:
Listen. Don’t assume you know the answer to your employee’s question before she’s finished asking it. And please, regardless of your personal religious beliefs, be sure to maintain a professional and neutral position to the request. Reacting with disdain or disbelief is a sure way to elicit a negative reaction from your employee and get the conversation going in the wrong direction.
If you can, do
Even if you’re not 100% certain the request meets the criteria for an accommodation under the law, if you can honor it without hurting your business, what’s the harm in doing so? Your employee will appreciate it, and that kind of appreciation can lead to the kind of loyalty that can’t be bought. You can always (and should actually) inform the employee in writing that you’re granting the request for reasons other than legal.
(By the way, if you aren’t sure of your legal obligations, don’t hesitate to consult with your attorney.)
Understand the difference between “mere inconvenience” and “undue hardship”
As mentioned earlier, an employer is under no obligation to accommodate an employee’s exact request if doing so would be an undue hardship.
Still, it’s important to keep in mind that a hardship is not a mere inconvenience. It might be a pain to adjust the schedules of three of your workers so that one can attend religious services during a regular workday, but a little pain and a true hardship aren’t one and the same.
Train your managers and check in at least annually to make sure the training has stuck
The manager who interviewed McShan got it right. So why did the second manager get it all wrong? Train your managers to ensure they get it right all the time.
(It’s also a good idea to create checks and balances in your employment processes, too. It’s always a bad idea to allow a manager sole authority to hire and fire. Always.)
Above all, follow the law
When approached with a request for religious accommodation, the law requires that the employer engage in a mandatory “interactive process.”
In other words, the employer needs to have a conversation with the employee before determining whether the request can be met. During this process, it’s expected that the employer will keep an open mind, which means listening without assumption, asking good and pointed questions as appropriate, and following up on requests.
Lorene Schaefer, employment attorney and managing partner of Win-Win HR, a law firm focused exclusively on alternative dispute resolution in the workplace, suggests that employers document whenever they talk to employees about religious accommodation requests and that they document the thought process for granting or (especially) refusing the request.
According to the Department of Labor, charges of religious discrimination make up 4% of all the charges filed annually.