Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on religion. This includes refusing to accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs or practices unless the accommodation would impose an undue hardship.
An “undue hardship” results in more than a de minimis cost to the employer. Objectively, paying more overtime is one example.
But what about when accommodating one employee lowers morale for others? Does that create undue hardship?
According to this published decision from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the answer is yes.
The plaintiff was (and, presumably, still is) a Sunday Sabbath observer whose religious beliefs dictate that Sunday is meant for worship and rest. As a result, the plaintiff informed his employer that he could not work on Sundays. The defendant -employer offered to find employees to swap shifts with him.
Shift swapping can be a reasonable means of accommodating a conflicting religious practice. But here, it did not work. On more than twenty Sundays, no co-worker would swap, and the plaintiff did not work. Therefore, the shift swap was not a Title VII “accommodation” because it did not resolve the issue.
When the plaintiff did not work, the defendant disciplined him. Eventually, the plaintiff just resigned.
When the plaintiff later claimed violations of Title VII, the defendant countered by arguing that accommodating the plaintiff created undue hardship by lowering production and co-worker morale.
Is that enough to demonstrate de minimis cost? According to the Third Circuit, it is:
Exempting [the plaintiff] from working on Sundays caused more than a de minimis cost on [the defendant] because it actually imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale…Because [the plaintiff] would not work on Sundays, only three individuals remained who could work on Sundays during the peak season…[His] absences also had an impact on operations and morale. The  supervisor testified that [the plaintiff’s] absence made timely delivery more difficult…
The defendant had no duty to accommodate the plaintiff in this particular situation.
This Third Circuit decision confirms that undue hardships include negative impacts on the employer’s operations, such as productivity or quality, personnel, increased workload on other employees, and reduced morale.
Does this mean that any potential morale hit renders a religious accommodation unreasonable?
No. Your mileage may vary. When addressing religious accommodations, each situation stands on its facts and circumstances. There is no one-size-fits-all. The common thread is that employers should address each situation in good faith and without prejudgment. Here, the employer tried shift swaps and discovered that they would not work. (Changing the employee’s work schedule was not an option).
This situation is unique because some undue hardship factors, like employee morale, have a subjective component, which can be hard to quantify. However, managers should be able to assess and document the impact of a failed accommodation. (Don’t just rely on their say-so to deny an accommodation.) Statements from co-workers can help too.
Also, remember that circumstances change. So, be flexible. Much like employers are more receptive to accommodating individuals with remote work, changes in working conditions and other developments may create new accommodation options.