Religious Observance in the Workplace

With an increasingly diverse workforce many employers have difficulty in dealing with requests for time off to observe religious holidays and other workplace issues related to religion and beliefs.

Firstly from a legal perspective there is no express requirement for employers to facilitate religious observance in the workplace. However it is important that employers consider whether their practices and policies could amount to indirect discrimination and whether they can make suitable and reasonable accommodations to deal with employees needs in this regard.

From a practical point of view a clear annual leave policy around how leave requests are approved and how far in advance leave requests need to be submitted is essential. This will allow employees who wish to attend special festivals or spiritual observance days to book time off in advance and allows the organisation to plan and assess leave requests against business needs. Organisations should be consistent with how the policy is applied and where possible be flexible and reasonable in dealing with such requests.

Employers are not required to provide breaks or facilities for prayer during the working day but subject to the type of business being carried out and facilities that are available, due consideration should be given to requests from staff if it does not cause difficulties for the business and their colleagues. This could for example mean providing a staff member with a break at a different time of the day to other staff.

The issue of religious dress code in the work place has proved problematic in a number of European countries and there are various conflicting legal decisions in this regard.  The opinion in Bougnaoui v Micropole SA that “an employee’s right to religious convictions should supersede an employer’s business interest in appeasing clients” contrasted directly with Achbita v G4S Secure Solutions which found that employees should “leave their religion at the workplace door” and that a “neutral dress code was legitimate and proportionate”. Generally it is advisable that any specific workplace requirements on dress code or jewellery and markings that could conflict with religious requirements is justified e.g. on health and safety grounds in order to avoid potential claims of indirect discrimination on grounds of religion.

The issue of religious observance in the workplace is certainly not a black and white area and employers would be advised to review whether their policies have the potential to constitute indirect discrimination on grounds of religion and to deal with requests around religious observance in a practical and considered manner.