Respect is key when dealing with faith in the workplace

April 8, 2012 

Easter Sunday is a good time to discuss rules regulating religious behavior on the job.

The workplace is a mini-me of our society. Sooner or later, every viewpoint, personality and faith will cross paths. Faith is an especially explosive topic because it is so personal. In the eyes of the law, my honestly held minority belief is just as valid as your mainstream brick-and-mortar religion.

No law prevents an employee from expressing religious beliefs. No law prevents a private business owner from posting verses or conducting open prayers. There is even no prohibition against seeking converts. There is no problem until there is a problem.

Problems come in two main categories.

“Enough already!”

Employees who sincerely and respectfully share their beliefs cause few problems. They know who is receptive and give the others space. Issues come from true-believers who fail to pick up on the leave-me-alone clues, or see those clues as a challenge.

Intensive preaching and warnings to non-believers, where the message is unwelcome and repeated, can rise to the level of unlawful harassment. When a manager is informed and fails to act, the employer can be liable for violation of these religious discrimination rules.

Employers can be caught in the middle and have both a complaint from a victim and a claim of religious freedom from the believer. The typical solution is “Yes, you have a right to your beliefs, AND she has a right to be free of them.” It can be hard to have both in the same fish bowl, and may require extensive coaching, even discipline.

Sometimes, owners and managers are the source of faith-based conversation. Again, there is no law against it, but it does heighten the obligation to know if some employees object and have a plan to balance the interests.

“I cannot work that day.”

Religious-based conflict also comes when employees want a day off (even every Saturday or Sunday) for religious reasons. The law does not evaluate the belief itself. It only requires that a “sincerely held belief” support the need for time off. Many employers accommodate schedule needs or swaps because they can do so without “undue hardship.” When the accommodation gets too costly, accommodation is no longer required and the employee has a choice to make.

Pre-hire questions about religious beliefs can be unlawful if used to screen out certain beliefs or to avoid the accommodation requirements. Churches hiring for jobs with doctrinal duties have different rules. Employers may state the schedule and ask if the applicant can work that schedule. Once a religious conflict is raised by a qualified candidate, the accommodation discussion may be required.

Is it easier if an employer simply prohibits all forms of religious discussion in the workplace? It might be easier, but even this can be challenged under the law.

The better answer is respect. Respect for honestly held beliefs. Respect for the non-believer. Respect for employees who enjoy prayer in the workplace. Respect for those who keep their beliefs private. Respect for all employees and their practices if they respect yours.

Enjoy your celebration on Sunday, whether it is faith-centered or spent welcoming the spring!

Bruce Clarke, J.D. is president and CEO of CAI, Inc., a human resource management firm with locations in Raleigh and Greensboro, N.C., that helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability. Learn more at

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