Religious discrimination in the workplace

Whether they express them openly or not, your employees might hold profound beliefs that affect the way they live and work

First published on Thursday, Jun 04, 2020

Last updated on Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Religious discrimination is treating a person or group differently because of their beliefs. Specifically, it is when adherents of different religions (or denominations) are treated unequally.

UK workers are part of organised religions with well-understood cultures, such as Christianity, Judaism or Islam. However, many less-well-known belief systems are covered under laws governing religious discrimination including Scientology, the Rastafari movement, and even atheism. By law, your organisation must respect their rights. So how can you make sure that happens?

Freedom of belief

All employees have the right to exercise their religious beliefs at work. Your company has a duty to make sure this is possible, even when the requirements of an employee’s belief differ from the requirements of your workplace.

  • A Muslim employee might wish to wear a beard where your company normally requires a clean-shaven appearance
  • A Jewish employee may need to leave early on Fridays to attend religious ceremonies
  • A practicing Christian may request a shift pattern that doesn’t include Sundays

What religious discrimination looks like

Religious discrimination can manifest in many ways throughout the workplace. It can happen when advertising a job, holding a company event, or even after an employee has left.

For example, an employee might experience:

  • Direct discrimination if they are treated less favourably because of their religion. For example, if an applicant is not offered a retail job because their faith doesn’t permit them to work on Saturdays.
  • Indirect discrimination if a company-wide rule conflicts with a specific religious practice. For example, if your company has a ‘no headwear’ policy and a Sikh employee wishes to wear a turban.
  • Harassment if they are consistently intimidated, mocked or made to feel afraid. This can be difficult to detect, and yet have a profound impact on the individual’s confidence and productivity.
  • Victimisation if they have complained about discrimination, or even left your company, but continue to be treated in a derogatory way by ex-colleagues.

Avoiding religious discrimination

An inclusive approach starts from recruitment. When advertising a job, you might want to state clearly that you welcome applications from people of all faiths.

For existing post-holders, you should be sensitive to:

  • events that include alcohol or meat
  • meetings, shifts or interviews on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays
  • activities that involve physical contact or sharing personal information
  • company plans during religious festivals or fasting periods

You could also provide a dedicated room for prayer or quiet contemplation, which meets a wide variety of religious needs.

Your planned approach should be clearly outlined in your Equality Policy.

Genuine Occupational Requirement

In some instances, your company may lawfully treat employees differently because of their beliefs. This is called a Genuine Occupational Requirement (GOR).

If an organisation is based on a faith — perhaps a Jewish school or Catholic care home — they can specify that employees must practise (or be sympathetic to) that faith. This is because it affects daily business and resonates with core values.

Steps to resolving discrimination

In the event that discrimination does occur, your employee can take several steps. They should, in the following order:

  1. Speak to the person causing the problem — they may be unaware of the issue, and stop immediately
  2. Ask their line manager to intervene
  3. Follow your company’s grievance procedure
  4. Make an appeal against an unsuccessful grievance procedure
  5. Raise a complaint to an employment tribunal under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003

The individual retains their full rights as an employee throughout every step of this process.

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