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OPINION: Religious discrimination in the workplace a growing issue


As employers are all too well aware, the workplace is not a vacuum, and many of the issues that roil society are unavoidably reflected within it. Religious discrimination is perhaps a perfect example of that.

Today's growing sectarianism, which is causing people to be less tolerant of other religions, as well as lingering intolerance generated by the 9/11 attacks—and people's growing willingness to carry their faith into the workplace—unfortunately has landed this issue squarely in employers' laps.

Combine this with people's greater willingness to assert their perceived rights. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission points out there were 4,152 religious discrimination claims filed with the agency during fiscal 2011, a 9.5% increase from the previous year. Such claims have increased steadily since 2005, and the pace is not expected to slow down any time soon.

All this creates a conundrum for employers, who have to walk a fine line. On one hand, there is the issue of letting people express their religious values, be it by wearing religious headdress, taking time off for their Sabbath, or taking breaks during the day to say their prayers.

On the other hand, employers have to worry about not causing resentment among fellow employees for the accommodations they grant. Nor—dare we say it?—should they be forced to accommodate workers to the point where it seriously cuts into their business' profits, or even puts their firms' survival at risk. An example of that would be the retailer whose busiest days fall on an employee's Sabbath, for which time off is required.

What to do? Fortunately there are some steps employers can take to at least try to keep everyone happy. Knowledge of the law and training for supervisors and managers can defuse many of the situations that lead to religious discrimination claims. A neutral approach and a willingness to go at least halfway often help as well.

Beyond that, perhaps all cooperative employers can do is hope that their own tolerance is reflected back into society at large.