Practice matters: Respecting religious practice

Employment law adviser Janice Sibbald offers advice on supporting workers with religious beliefs

THE topic of religion can be a sensitive and tricky area when it comes to employment law.

Gone are the days when interviewers would ask candidates loaded questions about schooling or football team preferences in a bid to deduce their religion. The UK is a multicultural country and it is important to be aware of how the practice can support employees with differing religious beliefs. An up-to-date workplace equality policy is key.

Defining discrimination

Religious discrimination is defined as treating someone differently because of their religion or lack of religion in one of the situations covered by the Equality Act (2010).

The treatment could stem from a one-off action or from a rule or policy. It does not have to be intentional to be unlawful and can be direct or indirect or include harassment or victimisation.

What may that look like in real life? Let’s look at these four areas individually.

Direct discrimination

This happens when an employee is treated less favourably than another worker in a similar situation because of their religion. For example, two female employees have applied for a promotion but the manager gives the job to the Christian candidate rather than the Hindu candidate. This is despite the fact the Hindu candidate is more skilled and experienced for the role.

Indirect discrimination

A manager introduces a rule that all employees must work at least three Saturdays each month in the office. This new rule could be perceived as indirect discrimination against any employees who are practising Jews, as Saturday is a religious day in Judaism.

Harassment

This may include hostile and intimidating, or humiliating behaviour towards someone because of their faith or religion. Examples include name-calling, inappropriate 'jokes' or comments, or offensive graffiti. Even if the conduct is not aimed at the employee directly, they may feel intimidated by insidious behaviour which creates an uncomfortable or oppressive work environment.

The harassment itself does not have to make explicit reference to religion or belief but if the reason behind the harassment is religion/belief, then it will be unlawful. Workplace ‘banter’ is therefore something that should be carefully managed and monitored, as what one person perceives as a ‘laugh’ may not be funny to someone else and could be considered offensive.

A single incident might constitute harassment if it is sufficiently serious. A series of incidents is likely to amount to harassment, especially if it has been made clear that the behaviour is unwanted.

Victimisation

This is when an employee is treated badly because they have made a complaint of religion or belief-related discrimination under the Equality Act. It also applies to the mistreatment of someone who is supporting a complainant. For example, a practice team member has been harassed by a supervisor because she wears a hijab. Her colleague saw this happen and is supporting her harassment claim, but then the colleague is also threatened with dismissal. In this scenario, both the original employee and her supportive colleague have been subject to victimisation.

Supportive steps

  • It is crucial for the practice to have an up-to-date equality policy. Consider including the policy in your induction process, and make sure it is read and understood by new employees. It should then be periodically discussed and referred to on an ongoing basis, e.g. at team meetings.
  • Encourage staff to share with you any religious practices that you should be aware of. Offer one-to-one time to discuss any workplace adjustments that can be considered to accommodate these, e.g. in supporting workers who are fasting during Ramadan, or providing a suitable space for those who wish to pray.
  • Ensure all colleagues – including senior staff – are aware of the need to show respect and consideration to any staff member who observes particular religious beliefs.
  • Where there is a “genuine occupational requirement” to discriminate, then this can be done in accordance with the Equality Act 2010. However, this is extremely rare in a clinical environment. The most likely scenario is where, for example, the Catholic Church advertises for a priest and they specify the candidate must be Catholic.

Please do not hesitate to contact the employment advisory team on advice@mddus.com if you have a specific case you would like to discuss with us.

Further information

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