Religious Diversity + Intolerance = Trouble

Survey data and federal statistics suggest that employers and employees are becoming less tolerant and accommodating of religious differences. The trend, if borne out, will have important legal implications for employers, especially those with diverse workforces.

The Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding recently surveyed 2,000 workers on the topic of religious discrimination in the workplace. One-third of the respondents said they personally witnessed religious discrimination in the workplace. Thirty-six percent said employers failed to accommodate their religious needs — e.g., they were subject to restrictions on clothing and beards, required to work on Sabbaths and religious holidays, or denied an area for prayer or meditation. Sixty-six percent of Muslims reported bias against Muslims, and 60% of white evangelical Protestants said that religious discrimination against Christians is as prevalent as discrimination against religious minorities.

Of course, employers are not required to grant all requests for religious accommodation. However, they should be aware that employees seem to be ever more litigious when it comes to protecting their religious beliefs. The number of charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission increased steadily from 2,880 in 2007 to a high of 4,151 in 2011 before dropping to 3,811 in 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available. However, for all that, the EEOC filed but 12 religious discrimination cases in 2013 and only nine in 2012.

Enforcement aside, maintenance of a respectful work environment usually requires that managers and HR personnel listen carefully and respectfully whenever an employee tells them that he or she has a sincere religious belief that conflicts with a job requirement — regardless of whether the belief is a tenet of organized religion or unique to that employee. Employers should engage the employee in discussion about how the employer can accommodate the employee without disrupting the workplace. If an employer refuses to accommodate an employee, it should be able to document why it cannot do so without "undue hardship" to its business.

If not handled with care, the combination of religious diversity and intolerance is volatile.