When Work and Religion Conflict

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Since 2007, the number of complaints for religious discrimination filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has risen significantly. It’s not hard to see why: An increase in immigrants of diverse faiths, greater workforce diversity, and the globalization of business all play a role in more workers from different religious backgrounds meeting on the job. For many employers, it is only a matter of time before they face conflicts between religion and work.

To resolve such conflicts, managers must frame the issues carefully and consider the long-term effects of their decisions. How they act can either improve morale by affirming an inclusive culture or it can suggest that religion is merely tolerated — and possibly invite litigation.

Consider what happened recently at a Cargill facility in Fort Morgan, Colorado. While some of the facts remain unknown, it appears that 11 Muslim workers of Somali descent wanted to pray at the same time in one of the two rooms at the plant set aside for prayer and reflection.

How exactly this request was handled is in dispute. According to one version, the workers’ supervisor asked them to go in smaller groups in order not to disrupt production on the assembly line. Another version claims that management had decided to cut down on prayer breaks. The workers prayed in small groups and at the end of their shift, 10 of the 11 quit. Ultimately, 150 Muslim workers missed work for three days in protest, and Cargill fired them for failing to inform the company that they would be absent. About 130 of the fired workers have filed a complaint with the EEOC.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits, among other things, religious discrimination in any facet of employment. Not only must employers not treat workers differently based on their religion, but when a conflict arises between a religious practice and a workplace policy, employers must also try to accommodate the employee.

Employees have a responsibility to give their employer notice of an actual conflict and work with their bosses to reach an accommodation. The burden on the employer is not very heavy: Any accommodation cannot be unreasonably expensive, compromise workplace safety, decrease efficiency, or require other employees to do more than their share of dangerous or burdensome work. Moreover, an accommodation does not have to fit the employee’s ideal scenario or even match what the employee asked for.

Workers and employers alike have incentives to reach a compromise. Otherwise, they are both likely to suffer. In Fort Morgan, the once-tight-knit immigrant community is in turmoil as families and neighbors leave. And Cargill still has not been able to fill all of the Muslim workers’ vacant jobs.

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SOURCE: Harvard Business Review
Kabrina Krebel Chang

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