Religion and belief: spiritual guidance

Religion and belief is so vast a topic that employers are failing to put policies in place, but Audrey Williams explains how to get started.

Key policy considerations

  • You cannot be expected to understand all aspects of the many religions and belief systems, so source advice and involve others in the establishment of a policy. Explore whether your organisation can accommodate a particular request. It doesn’t mean that you always have to agree to a request, but you must show willing to explore all the alternatives.
  • Identify the people an employee can approach where they can raise any concerns they may have. This will allow matters to be dealt with sensitively, and any problems can be properly assessed and challenges ‘nipped in the bud’.
  • If a request is refused, which an employee regards as infringing their religious rights or religious beliefs, make sure you communicate your reasons for doing so, and point out your procedures within your religion and beliefs policy.
  • While consistency is important, avoid being overly stringent or strict in your approach, as you are at risk of being regarded as discriminatory.
  • Cross reference other key policies within your organisation. Consider religious and belief contractual terms under:
  • Harassment and bullying or dignity at work policy
  • Any dress and appearance policy
  • Annual leave terms.

Since the introduction of religious discrimination rights by the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, recent research conducted by the Institute of Employment Studies suggests there have been 461 claims of discrimination on grounds of religion or belief.

This figure may seem low, but a number of these cases have been high profile, generally those focused on religious dress, such as Azmi v Kirklees Metropolitan Borough Council.

The fact that individuals are willing to make claims, including indirect discrimination as well as direct religious discrimination, means you should think ahead and anticipate possible religious issues which may arise within your workplace.

If a claim cannot be avoided, it’s critical for you to demonstrate that you took all reasonably practicable steps, with the back-up of a well thought out religion and beliefs policy, to prevent direct and any indirect discrimination.

The UK 2001 Census revealed that more than 95% of the UK’s population declared they were of a particular religion. The most common included Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians and Baha’ís. Yet, according to a survey by Labour Market Outlook earlier this year, of 1,369 employers, only one-third had a policy on religion and beliefs in the workplace. Evidently, many employers are not keen to put such policies in place because they are daunted by the prospect of creating a policy that deals with a wealth of issues associated with a range of different belief systems – including non-believers – around religious symbols, festivals, observances and customs.

Any policy on religion and beliefs should include dress and appearance, for example uniforms, the standard of dress, hair, beards, jewellery, and what might be deemed acceptable/unacceptable standards.

Consider arrangements for leave and time off for religious festivals or observances. In some organisations, for example, subject to an approval process and requisite notice, additional and lengthy periods of leave are permitted for staff to undertake pilgrimages. In your policy, explain to what extent you can accommodate requests for additional time off for key festivals – for example, the festival of Eid ul-Fitr (the biggest Muslim festival), Easter and Christmas. Are these dates likely to coincide with any core production periods for the business or critical business periods? Make it clear in your policy under what terms you would not be able to allow extra time off in these circumstances.

Workplace provisions

Clearly state your position on allowing time off during the day for religious observance, praying and the facilities you are willing to provide for these activities.

Another common subject is the storage of food within the workplace or the restaurant facilities. Is there a need for kosher food? Bear in mind that belief includes philosophical beliefs, which, for example, could include vegans, who may wish to store their food in particular ways and will certainly have food preferences.

At a practical level, rather than trying to address these types of issues across the myriad of different religions, you would be well advised to focus on those religions that actually impact on your workplace. Research and find out what constitutes the religious ‘make-up’ of your workforce. Be open and consult with your employees by forming a working group to discuss day-to-day issues.

A focus group will help you to understand the issues which, from the individual’s perspective, are likely to cause any concern by raising awareness, obtaining specialist advice, making recommendations or input from other sources of core beliefs, and how they manifest that belief.

Make sure your policy identifies who an individual can refer to when a concern arises. In the same way as dignity at work and harassment policies often make use of specialist advisers or counsellors, individuals who have been trained and understand the issues surrounding religion and beliefs will have a general awareness of the potential risk and will, therefore, fully address any issues.

Separate guidance which highlights key religions and common beliefs, with further reading or reference to appropriate websites, can be invaluable. It demonstrates that you have made a proper assessment of the likely impact on your business and what can be agreed or what, for legitimate reasons, cannot be acceded to, where the business requirements outweigh the individual issues.

There is no reason why a policy cannot set this out provided proper consideration has been given and the rationale clearly explained in the document.

Legislation

On 6 April 2007, the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 were amended to give rights to those gaining access to goods, facilities and services, so there is the potential for customers and service users to raise concerns or indeed complaints about discriminatory treatment.

Bearing in mind this extension of the legislation, if your business is in a sector where your staff come into contact with members of the public, you should provide separate guidance in a religion and beliefs policy. You should also provide training for staff, advising on their interaction as well as improving their understanding of religious beliefs and observances.

This can help prevent a situation where a member of the public or a customer objects to a member of staff’s comments, attitude or insensitivity, even perhaps a thoughtless comment, which the customer could regard as discrimination.

Such guidance and arrangements may go further and allow facilities for customers and users for example, allowing prayer facilities or, if this is not feasible within your organisation, offer guidance (and prompts for staff) as to where individual members of the public can be referred (for example, the local mosque), to assist.

Draw up a ‘do’s and don’ts’ checklist as well as a reference point so that if an employee is unsure about a situation or a request, they know who they can ask.

An overarching religion and beliefs policy which covers the core principles will leave you well placed to address matters as they arise and help you to avoid any potential claims.

Audrey Williams is partner and head of diversity at law firm Eversheds

 

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