A matter of faith: Employee absenteeism and religious practice
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A matter of faith: Employee absenteeism and religious practice

Dealing with religious practice at work is a thorny issue. On one hand, most employers recognize that the majority of employees identify with a religious group. On the other hand, accommodating religious practices, and particularly religiously-based employee absences, can get tricky.

Although there are many ways to address religious practice and employee absenteeism, a few basic facts might help you create an employee attendance policy to deal with the issue.

The legal obligation to accommodate

Under Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers must reasonably accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship” on the business. Many states have enacted their own religious accommodation laws as well.

A religious accommodation is an adjustment to the work environment or company rules/policies that will allow the employee to practice his or her religion. Flexible scheduling, voluntary substitutions or swaps, job reassignments, lateral transfers and modifying workplace practices, policies and/or procedures are examples of ways an employer might accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs.

Defining Undue Hardship

An employer ordinarily can establish “undue hardship” (for purposes of religious accommodation in the workplace ) if accommodating an employee’s religious practices:

  • Requires significantly more than ordinary administrative costs – Simply making calendar entries, noting the absence in an employee absence tracking system or talking with the employee about when they will be absent from work is not sufficient to meet test.
  • Diminishes efficiency in other jobs – The fact that some (or even all of the other) employees do not like a particular religion or religious practice is not enough to meet this test. On the other hand, a practice that required all employees to remain silent or stop work during an employee’s prayer time may qualify.
  • Infringes on other employees’ job rights or benefits – An employee’s sincerely held religious belief is not sufficient reason to require other employees to dress, speak or behave in a certain way (for instance, sit only in gender-segregated sections of a cafeteria.)
  • Impairs workplace safety – Clothing, ornamentation, decoration or sound are just a few of the elements that can, but do not always, constitute undue hardship. Wearing a turban or hijab in an office is not a valid workplace safety concern, while wearing either near machinery in a factory might be.
  • Causes coworkers to carry the accommodated employee's share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work – If, for example, an employee refused to handle certain types of animals or animal waste because of religious practices, and that was a significant part of the job, a hardship exception to accommodation might be created. On the other hand, briefly leaving the work area to pray, or taking a day of leave for a religious holiday while others continue to work has not been held to meet the hardship test.
  • Conflicts with another law or regulation – Those who practice religions where the use of government-banned substance is part of their ritual have been prohibited from practicing at work, and from leaving work to use the substance, as breaking the law is not a “reasonable accommodation.”

Making a sincere effort to accommodate helps employee morale

Many religious accommodations are feasible, and the act of having an open door policy, and trying to work with your employees can have a significant impact on employee loyalty and morale.

A designation of “undue hardship” should be determined on a case-by-case basis.

If an employee asks for time off for something related to a sincerely held religious belief (e.g., to attend a religious service, to observe a religious holiday, or not to work certain days of the week), or asks for a reasonable exception to your dress code, break times or other policies, try to find a way to accommodate that request, if possible.

Attendance and religious accommodation

Check your employee attendance policy to make sure religious accommodations are clearly addressed to avoid claims of favoritism or discrimination. Many employers offer a set number of days (usually 2 or 3) for employees who wish to use them for “religious, family or cultural events”. This simple step may head off future problems with employee absences for religious reasons.

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