Yesterday, I encountered a question on an HR forum. The poster asked about an employee who had just changed religions, was now a Muslim, and wanted to wear “Muslim clothes.” This violated the company’s dress code, she said. Was she required to accommodate the request?
Forum members, theoretically HR professionals, condemned her immediately as bigoted, called the question a no-brainer, and insisted that of course, she had to accommodate the employee.
It took at least 20 comments before someone asked what the dress code was, and another 20 before someone asked what the employee’s job was.
A few months ago I encountered another religious accommodation question on an HR forum. In this question, the employee didn’t want to participate in a Pride event and claimed her religion prevented her from participating.
Just like the other question, people jumped in with condemnation for the employee. How bigoted the employee must be and of course, the business didn’t have to accommodate her. No questions about what her position was, what the event was, and would it create an undue hardship to accommodate the employee.
The answer to both questions is the same: It depends.
With religious accommodation cases, it can be difficult to keep our own feelings out of it and answer the question correctly. You can’t refuse to accommodate because you don’t like it.
Religious accommodation is required if the employee has a sincere belief, and it doesn’t cause an undue hardship.
Let’s look at each one of them.
In the first situation, if the Muslim employee wanted to wear a full burka with big flowing sleeves and the job was neurosurgeon, of course, it wouldn’t be reasonable to accommodate that. You can’t operate with flowing sleeves.
But, if the job was (as Abercrombie & Fitch found out) in retail, they will need to accommodate.
If the Pride event is one where half the employees don’t have to work the event, and someone else is willing to swap shifts with her, they will need to accommodate.
But, if the company is responsible for security for the event, and every security employee has to work that day, then it would cause undue hardship and they would not need to accommodate her request.
In both situations, it doesn’t matter what your personal feelings are. What matters are the facts of the situation. Religious accommodations are very fact-specific, and anyone who jumps in with a definitive answer without clarification around the job, the company, and the requested accommodation is answering based on their own personal beliefs rather than giving the correct answer.
You have to set your own beliefs aside in these situations. You need to explain to the employee and the management why the answer is thus-and-such.
You also need to make sure no one retaliates against the employee who requested an accommodation–whether you could give the accommodation or not. Your personal feelings on headscarves and Pride parades are irrelevant. If the company can accommodate the request without undue hardship, you need to provide that.