18 Jan 2019
Each year, thousands of businesses call Croner for advice on sensitive issues involving religious and philosophical beliefs at work. To mark World Religion Day, our experts share their answers to some of the most common questions they receive.
Q1: What does the law say about religion at work?
The Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against individuals based on religion and philosophical beliefs.
The Act covers any religion that has a clear structure and belief system. Examples include the Baha’i faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Rastafarianism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism.
There isn’t a comprehensive list of religions that the Act covers. But there is guidance on what criteria that a belief must meet to be protected by the law. For example, the religion must be ‘genuinely held’ and have achieved ‘a certain level of seriousness, continuity and importance’. The Act covers lesser-known belief systems, and religions with relatively few observers. But an individual can’t ‘make-up’ a religion and have it automatically protected under the Act.
Q2: An employee has asked us to provide a prayer room at work. Should we do this?
Many religions require observers to pray at certain times during the day, and you should respect this where possible. But there is no legal requirement for you to provide your staff with a prayer room.
Discuss with your employee how you could reasonably meet their request. If you do have a suitable quiet area, such as a meeting room, then you could consider setting it aside permanently for prayer. Or you could allow it to be used at certain times of the day.
Q3: An employee has asked not to work on a specific date, claiming that it goes against their religious beliefs. Do I need to grant this request?
Employees do not have an automatic right to time off for religious observance, so you can refuse the request. However, you should handle the situation sensitively to avoid accusations of discrimination.
For example, if you allow time off for people of one religion and not for others then you may face claims of direct discrimination. And if you don’t allow time off for religious reasons for any staff but it affects someone of one religion more than others, then you could be guilty of indirect discrimination.
Consider whether the employee’s religion requires certain periods of not working. If it does, then you may wish to allow them to take the time off, especially if they’re willing to use their annual leave entitlement.
If this isn’t an option, then make sure you have a strong business reason for refusing the request. You should be able to justify to your employee, and potentially a tribunal, why you required them to work within this period.
Q4. An employee has said they can’t join a meal I’ve arranged because there’s nothing for them to eat due to their religious beliefs. What should I do?
You should make sure work gatherings are inclusive for all staff. This includes workers with dietary restrictions due to their religious beliefs. Consider changing the venue to one that offers suitable food. If that’s not an option, then you could call the restaurant to ask if they can make a special accommodation.
In March 2019, a tribunal will consider whether ethical veganism is also a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010. If this proves to be the case, then not making arrangements for a vegan employee may too count as indirect discrimination. It’s worth noting that ‘ethical veganism’ may be different to other forms of veganism, such as dietary or environmental veganism.
Q5. We have a dress code at work, do I need to change this for workers’ religions?
Where possible, be flexible to those whose religious or philosophical beliefs affect how they choose to dress at work.
If you can’t justify a dress code that impacts a particular group of workers based on their religious or philosophical beliefs, then you may face a claim of indirect discrimination. For example, a uniform policy that requires staff to wear short sleeves may affect those whose religious beliefs require modesty in dress more than others.
A good way to judge if your dress code is reasonable is to ask yourself whether your employee needs to follow it to do their job effectively. For example, you may need to enforce rules on dress for health & safety purposes. In some jobs, wearing items of jewellery or headwear may put the employee at genuine risk of harm.
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Religion and belief at work is in an important issue. You need to protect your staff from discrimination and keep your business on the right side of the law.
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