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Religious Accommodation in the Workplace

Religious Accommodation in the Workplace

If you're a Muslim in a Christian workplace, how can you satisfy your religious obligation of daily prayers?

If you're a Jew invited to the company's "pig and pork roast" picnic, should you not attend or go and not eat?

Federal law mandates that employers accommodate employee religious practices at a de minimus level -- at the least cost to the employer. "The employer's only duty is to provide a reasonable accommodation without undue hardship," says Charles Craver, professor of employment law at George Washington University in Washington, DC. "Courts are very nervous about government establishing or favoring religion."

Employers are skittish, too. Employees who seek religious accommodations at work should be aware that "most companies panic about religion," says Cynthia Graves Wigglesworth, president of Conscious Pursuits, a Bellaire, Texas-based consultant on work and spirituality. "They're so scared of appearing to endorse religion, they don't even talk about it."

So if you require accommodation for your religious beliefs, you must be proactive. Follow these tips to get what you need.

Ask for Accommodation

"Don't be combative," Wigglesworth says. "Don't threaten a lawsuit. Reassure people you're not trying to convert them. You want them to be sensitive to you, so you must be sensitive to them."

"If you go to your supervisor or HR department, they'll usually ask what you're seeking," Craver says. "You should know ahead of time what you need. A reasonable proposal is one that does not cost anything and does not cause undue hardship."

"Assure them you will get your work done," Wigglesworth advises. Offering to do something for your workgroup beyond what's required is one way to demonstrate you have the company's best interests at heart. For example, a Muslim seeking prayer time during work hours or a Jew needing time off for holy days could offer to work later or on Christian holidays.

It's less effective to simply ask for days off. "You can ask someone to trade, but [if] your employer has to pay overtime, it's an undue hardship, and he doesn't have to do it," Craver says.

Be Flexible

Show your employer you have taken a thoughtful approach to your situation. For example, a Muslim prayer room should be a separate, sacred place where shoes are not worn. Worshipers can make a supply room special by putting a sign on the door during prayers and by providing a prayer rug that becomes the required clean place to pray.

Kosher and halal food rules are strict, so bringing appropriate foods to a company outing is one solution. Another reasonable compromise would be to ask for or offer to supply vegetarian fare, Wigglesworth says.

Education Is Up to You

Educating supervisors or HR personnel about religious requests is sometimes necessary. For example, many people "have a vague or stereotypical understanding of Sikhs," says David Miller, executive director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Yale University Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut. "Even a Reform Jew might not understand some of the laws of Orthodox Judaism."

Teaching is best done in a reasonable, friendly way. "If you explain your request patiently, you might be surprised at the relief your employer shows at not being put under the gun," Miller advises. "Err on the side of assuming the other person may desire to help but feels inadequate knowing how."

It also helps to show a balanced perspective. "Being able to separate what is nonnegotiable from that which is not necessary goes a long way toward allaying concerns," Miller says.

Don't Compromise Your Beliefs

But sometimes, an accommodation in compliance with the legal requirement may not meet an employee's needs. In that case, says Judy Neal, founder and executive director of the International Center for Spirit at Work, "be very courageous, and take a clear stand. It's important to live in alignment with your deepest faith. I put faith ahead of career. If your company is not willing to accommodate you, you need to think about maybe not working there."

Neal advises job seekers to raise religious-accommodation issues at the interview stage. "The time to talk about it is before you get hired," she says. "If you don't like what you hear, you may want to go somewhere else."

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