Anna Burges-Lumsden investigates what the first successful employment tribunal brought under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) regulations could mean for employers.
Mohammed Khan is a devout Muslim whose lifetime ambition was to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. He made a formal request to his managers at the Leeds-based bus company where he worked as a cleaner to grant him six weeks leave. He heard nothing back and his line manager told him he could assume his request had been agreed.
When he returned home, he discovered he had been suspended and was later sacked for gross misconduct for taking unauthorised leave.
Senior managers at NIC Hygiene argued that he had breached the terms of his contract, but the employment tribunal threw out their case. It ruled in favour of Khan, awarding him £10,000 compensation – more than he earned in a year.
Khan’s victory was the first tribunal win since the new anti-discrimination regulations were passed in December 2003. It was heralded as a landmark case with massive implications for employers across the UK.
According to Anna Power, the lawyer who represented Mr Khan, the case is a much-needed wake-up call to the workplace.
Power said: “This case clearly sends out a warning to companies that they need to be aware of what their obligations are now. There are more things than just holidays they need to take into account, it’s anything relating to employees’ beliefs.”
Muslim lawyer, Makbool Javaid, Partner at DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, believes change has been slow to arrive.
“By and large employers have put in place policies which accommodate their employees’ faith, but they are not always properly administered with sufficient training or awareness,” he said.
“We will see an increase in litigation as more individuals become aware of their rights. Previously, people were reluctant to assert their religious needs at work but they will not have more confidence in light of this case.”
Joanne Evans, head of Addleshaw Goddard’s Discrimination Unit, said employers are anxious about opening the floodgates. They are concerned that if they grant leave for one employee to go to a religious festival then they must grant all other requests to avoid discrimination.
Evans said there is reassurance in that there is no automatic right for staff to be allowed time off under the new regulations.
“It is a balancing act for the employer. Employers need to pre-empt staff needs and have a proactive approach, with procedures in place to deal with requests appropriately, at the right level and in a timely manner.”
The conciliation service Acas has produced a reference guide for employers. This says employers are expected to consider and accommodate requests where it is reasonable and practical, but, if the employer decides that consequently the business will suffer disproportionately, then the employer will not be accused of discrimination.
Javaid said it is not only employers who need to pay attention.
“Requests from staff must be balanced with business needs and mutual respect is required from both sides for it to work,” he said. “It must be practical and feasible for businesses to accommodate employee requests.”
Diana Warman, diversity adviser for the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, agreed: “There needs to be a commonsense and respectful approach to the issue from both sides. If the request can be granted in a fair basis without compromising work conditions then it must at least be considered. Staff must also give sufficient notice.”
Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, believes that employers are already doing a good job.
“Just as employers have made accommodations to employ women in the workforce, they should do so to accommodate people of faith,” he said. “To be fair, many employers are already making good progress in this regard.”
Ibrahim Mogra, imam and chairman of the Mosque and Community Affairs Committee, added another dimension when discussing the Muslim festival of Ramadan.
He said it was in employer’s interest to be considerate to religious needs, as after all, “a hungry employee is not a good employee”.
Beliefs in the UK
According to the 2001 national census, the UK population professes to believe in the following religions:
|Religion||% of UK population|
|Pagan and wicca||Not available|