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Religious belief and the workplace

16th Apr 2007 - 00:00
By Linda Wilson of leading law firm Blake Lapthorn Tarlo Lyons' employment team
One of the issues that employers may have to deal is when an employee refuses to work on Christmas Day on religious grounds. However, it is not only at Christmas time that employers need to be tolerant of their employees' religious beliefs. The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations) came into force in 2003, and outlawed direct and indirect discrimination, which means treating people less favourably on the grounds of their religion of beliefs. It also outlaws harassment and victimisation. A major problem for employers is applying the right policies in the workplace. Holidays Refusing to allow an employee to take time off to observe a religious holiday may amount to indirect discrimination if that refusal is unjustified in the circumstances. Such requests should be allowed whenever all possible unless the employer can show a legitimate business interest for refusing, such as ensuring the smooth running of the business. Cases have found that refusing to allow an employee time off for a pilgrimage to Mecca, and requiring an employee to work on a Sunday amount to indirect discrimination. However, each case is judged on its own circumstance. For example, an employer with a large number of staff may be able to accommodate a request for leave more easily than a smaller employer with limited staff numbers. Also, employers who do require their employees to work at religiously-sensitive times, such as on a Sunday or on Christmas Day, they should give good notice to allow time to deal with any queries, complaints or alternative cover. Dress codes A recent case in the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) involved a Muslim employee whose religious belief required his beard to be approximately 4 inches long. He worked for West Coast Trains which had a uniform standard requiring beards to be smart and neatly trimmed. The employee complained that he had been treated less favourably on the grounds of his religion by being required to trim his beard. However, West Coast Trains succeeded in showing that the reason they had asked the employee to trim his beard was not because of his religion but because of their uniform code. They had allowed him to keep his beard to the length he required provided it was tidy. The EAT found no religious discrimination, and said the employer's concern was focused on enforcing its uniform standard. This case is a good example of when dress codes which potentially could cause indirect discrimination can be justified in the circumstances. Prayer facilities Although there is no legal requirement to provide prayer facilities, some employees may need to be able to pray in quiet at certain times of the day. If facilities can be made available without adversely affecting the business, it would be difficult to see how an employer can refuse. Grievances - beware! As usual, employers should be aware of the statutory grievance procedures. A written complaint from an employee about being forced work on Christmas Day could amount to a grievance. This would need to be dealt with fairly and appropriately in accordance with the employer's grievance policy and the statutory grievance procedures. For further details, please contact Linda Wilson on Tel: 02392 221122; Email or visit
Written by
PSC Team