An HR primer on handling religious-accommodation requests

religion is an imperative statement.Do you know what to do if an employee comes into your office asking for a shift change or some other workplace accommodation because of a sincerely-held religious belief?

A short lesson from a recent federal-court decision and a few tips after the jump…

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In Jackson v. Longistics Transportation, Inc., a husband and wife who worked for Longistics, a trucking company, were members of Christian church that adhered to the Jewish Torah. Accordingly, they requested a religious accommodation and asked out of assigned runs from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown. Twice, however, the plaintiffs were assigned runs that spanned the Jewish Sabbath and claimed that they were subsequently reprimanded for failing to work. They subsequently sued.

The test for accommodation requests.

Title VII makes it unlawful to discriminate against an employee on the basis of religion. The Act broadly defines “religion” to mean all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief. To make an initial showing of religious discrimination in a failure to accommodate case, a plaintiff must establish three elements:

  1. he holds a sincere religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement;
  2. he has informed the employer about the conflicts; and
  3. he was discharged or disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting employment requirement.

If the plaintiff meets this initial burden, the employer must then show that it could not accommodate the request without suffering an undue hardship; i.e., something more than a de minimis cost.

Don’t ignore accommodation requests.

In Jackson, the court determined that the plaintiffs had met the three-part test and, therefore, could present their case to a jury. First, Longistics did not dispute that the Jacksons were sincere in their religious beliefs. Second, the Jacksons informed Longistics of their religious accommodation issue. Third, the court found that the plaintiffs had, in fact, received written reprimands. Finally, the court found that Longistics failed to offer evidence that it actually provided an accommodation or that the Jacksons’s requested accommodation would have resulted in an undue hardship.

Eight ways to help get it right.

So how should this go down, if you receive a religious-accommodation request? Here are eight best practices straight from the EEOC.

  • Employers should inform employees that they will make reasonable efforts to accommodate the employees’ religious practices.
  • Employers should train managers and supervisors on how to recognize religious accommodation requests from employees.
  • Employers should consider developing internal procedures for processing religious accommodation requests.
  • Employers should individually assess each request and avoid assumptions or stereotypes about what constitutes a religious belief or practice or what type of accommodation is appropriate.
  • Employers and employees should confer fully and promptly to the extent needed to share any necessary information about the employee’s religious needs and the available accommodation options.
  • An employer is not required to provide an employee’s preferred accommodation if there is more than one effective alternative to choose from. An employer should, however, consider the employee’s proposed method of accommodation, and if it is denied, explain to the employee why his proposed accommodation is not being granted.
  • Managers and supervisors should be trained to consider alternative available accommodations if the particular accommodation requested would pose an undue hardship.
  • When faced with a request for a religious accommodation which cannot be promptly implemented, an employer should consider offering alternative methods of accommodation on a temporary basis, while a permanent accommodation is being explored. In this situation, an employer should also keep the employee apprised of the status of the employer’s efforts to implement a permanent accommodation.
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