01/07/2015

By Kirsty Senior, Co-Founder and Director of citrusHR


Religion in the workplace is something that many employers would be reluctant to even approach - but it can affect, or be cited as an influence for, many decisions in the workplace; both positive and negative.

Whether it's your decisions or those of your employees though, as an employer you need to ensure that your business has a fair, reasonable and accepting approach towards religion - or even, where it might impact upon the rights of others, a tough but fair approach. But how can you tell when to be one, or the other?

There have been a number of cases recently whereby the division between a tolerant or tough approach on religious beliefs has been questioned.

First of all, there was the Asher's Bakery case. You may have heard it called the 'gay cake' row, where a homosexual man claimed discrimination when a bakery refused to make a cake iced with the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’, citing their religious beliefs.

In this instance, the bakery lost the case, although it has since lodged an appeal. And although this is a dispute between a business owner and a customer rather than an employee, it is a potential lesson for employers that if you have staff with strong religious beliefs, you can’t use these to justify discriminatory behaviour. Therefore you may wish to ensure that what they believe does not work at odds to what customers might request, but also that what you ask of them does not compromise their rights. You could be putting your business at risk if you don't take care.

However, there is precedent that being too tough on contentious religious beliefs can also land businesses in trouble.

Another recent case saw a Christian nursery worker win a religious discrimination case against her employer, because it was deemed they had acted too strongly. What happened? She was fired for gross misconduct, after telling a colleague that her gay lifestyle was a sin. However, her claim after dismissal was successful as the employer was seen to have discriminated against her on the grounds of her religious beliefs. Also, that facts of the case were not felt to justify the dismissal because the comment came up in conversation started by the gay colleague and was not an attempt by Ms Mbuyi to force her religious beliefs on her colleague.

This is a reminder to employers that whatever their own opinions are, or those of their employees, being fair and reasonable at all times is essential. Simply dismissing someone for gross misconduct, especially when the misconduct was related to religious belief, is perhaps a strong reaction that should have been backed up by further investigation beforehand, although it is clear that the employer thought they were protecting the gay worker from discrimination by their actions

But your current employees' aren't the only people you need to be sensitive to.

Your responsibilities as an employer extend right through to the recruitment process, as you likely already know. So not considering how religious beliefs can affect people's ability to work when drafting job adverts can land you in hot water, as demonstrated by Fhima vs. Traveljigsaw.

This case saw a Jewish candidate receive a £15,500 payout when the company she had applied to rejected her application, not once, but twice. The reason being that she could not work on Saturdays due to her observance of the Jewish day of rest - Shabbat.

Had the business dealt with the applicant more carefully, or if they had a genuine business reason why she needed to work Saturdays then the issue could potentially have been avoided. In this specific case the role was working five days out of seven and there was no reason why the Saturday shifts could not be covered by colleagues hence the finding of the tribunal that this was discriminatory.

In conclusion, when managing religion in the workplace, it is important to think not only about how your beliefs and employees' beliefs will gel, but also how they might compromise employees' rights. And this extends to every part of employment, including the first point at which you interact with a potential employee during recruitment.