I have been approached by one of our line managers regarding a request made by an employee to leave early on a Friday for religious reasons. The manager does not want to agree, but has not given reasons. I am concerned because during the World Cup, to enter into the spirit of enthusiasm, we are going to great lengths to accommodate people’s requests for time off to watch matches.
You are right to be concerned and need to investigate further to obtain details, such as the nature of the request and why the line manager does not want to agree to it.
When considering such requests, an employer must be careful not to discriminate unlawfully, in this case on grounds of religion. As with any request in relation to religious observance, it is usually a question of whether or not a refusal constitutes indirect discrimination.
Often the main issue is whether or not that refusal can be objectively justified under the legislation. Objective justification is a high threshold and involves considering whether refusing the request is a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.
You are also correct in thinking that the measures taken for the World Cup may be used against the company if it refuses the request for the time off. Undoubtedly, unless the situation can be distinguished – for example, on the basis that the World Cup is a one-off event that only lasts one month and therefore the disruption is limited – your willingness to be flexible in relation to the World Cup may be used to undermine the company’s inflexibility in relation to this request.
Similar considerations apply in relation to requests for a wider range of flexible working arrangements on other grounds, such as childcare. It is important to apply rules and practices consistently and, where they are not applied consistently, to be able to justify why this has not happened. Making comparisons with similar situations is key. The World Cup is a prime example where employers need to think carefully about the implications of wanting to be seen to be a generous employer.
Matthew Whelan, solicitor, Speechly Bircham