One of my employees has refused to attend our annual sales conference taking place at the end of September. He is a Muslim and has informed me that the conference is being held during the month of Ramadan. This is a vital conference and all sales managers are required to attend, but the sales manager has stated that he cannot be around alcohol. What should I do?
Balancing the needs of a business and those of an employee is always a difficult exercise.
During Ramadan, Muslims are obliged to abstain from all food and drink between dawn and sunset. The spiritual aspects of the fast also include avoiding irreligious sights and sounds.
In considering your employee’s request not to attend, you must be mindful of the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2002, and will need to consider carefully how you approach his concerns in line with your obligations under those regulations that prohibit both direct and indirect discrimination.
You should arrange to meet your employee to explore his concerns fully and determine whether a compromise can be reached.
For example, consider when alcohol will be served at the conference. Will alcohol be limited to evening events only? It may be possible to allow your employee to return home in the evenings or for him to be accommodated elsewhere at the conference to avoid contact with alcohol. Another solution could be to avoid serving alcohol at all. With an increasing number of cases reaching tribunal following badly behaved employees at Christmas parties, employers are turning to alcohol-free events.
Forcing your employee to attend the sales conference if alcohol is present could be deemed indirect discrimination. While it’s possible to justify indirect discrimination, the test is not an easy one. You would have to show that the requirement to attend is in the “pursuit of a legitimate aim” – there is a real business need – and that the requirement for your employee’s attendance is proportionate to that aim, since the business need outweighs the religious belief.
By Kate Meadowcroft, partner, DWF