Calls by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC ) for the UK Government to change the law regarding religious freedom in the workplace, have made little progress.
Following some high profile cases and media stories about the issue both employees and employers are understandably confused.
Twelve months ago Nadia Eweida, a Christian employee at British Airways, won her discrimination-at-work case after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that she had been unfairly discriminated against when asked to stop wearing a cross visibly.
At the time, the EHRC, urged the government to look at the need to change the law and take the European Court judgement into account. However, according to the commission little, if any, progress has been made.
Recently the media reported that Muslim members of staff at Marks and Spencer were refusing to handle pork and alcohol for religious reasons. While at Sainsbury’s, staff have been advised that there is no reason why they cannot handle these goods irrespective of their religious belief.
So what can SME employers do to prevent themselves being on the wrong side of a law that seems confusing even to some of our largest corporates?
1. All employers need to make sure they are up to date with the latest employment legislation particularly in relation to discrimination law.
2. Robust anti-discrimination and equality policies need to be in place and strictly adhered to by employees.
3. A strong anti-discrimination stance should be reinforced in the workplace as well as the promotion of diversity. Failure to do so could result in a discrimination claim.
4. An employer must establish whether a religion or belief is genuine and this can only be questioned in exceptional cases.
5. All requests from employees must be taken seriously and an employer should try to accommodate them unless there is a reason not to. The type of requests that may be put forward could be to do with clothing, appearance or jewellery or about taking time off work for prayer or to observe a religious holiday or about altering work duties. For instance, to prevent the handling of alcohol or pork.
6. When deciding whether to accept the request, the employer should consider whether it will impact on the business, employees’ work or affect health and safety as well as other employees and customers.
7. It must not be assumed that all members of the same religion share the same religious observance.
Ultimately, an employer should listen to all requests and discuss them thoroughly with the staff in question so that a mutually agreed solution can be found.