Managing religion and beliefs in the workplace
Published 18 April 2023
Having recently celebrated Passover and Easter and with Ramadan drawing to a close, it is the perfect time to look at religion and belief in the workplace which remains a delicate subject for many employers.
How a worker opts to observe their faith at work can be a careful balancing act in an employer wanting to do what is right, and deciding what is best for its business.
It is unlawful to subject an employee to any type of unfavourable work-related treatment as a direct result of their religion or belief.
In the last Census 37.2 per cent of the population in England and Wales said they had no religion, which was up from a quarter of the population in the previous official survey [1 cited 18.4.23]
It is not uncommon for workers to mock or make fun of something they have little knowledge of, or are not well informed about.
In many workplaces there is a default position in which any offensive or insulting treatment of an employee, because of their religion or otherwise, is dismissed as just ‘banter.’
Or, admittedly, there can also be cases in which an employee overreacts and makes unwarranted allegations that can quickly cause a simple matter to escalate.
Any complaint about unfair treatment because of religion or a belief should be thoroughly and fairly investigated. Currently there is no cap or limit on what a victim of any type of discrimination at work can receive as compensation.
So, it is vital that employers not only understand how to correctly manage religion in the workplace, but also understand how it differs from a belief, because both can create legal problems.
A Sikh police officer who was told to remove his turban during riot training was awarded compensation by an employment tribunal for discrimination, which included unfavourable treatment because of his religion. [2 cited 18.4.23]
While a doctor who refused to refer to transgender patients by their preferred pronouns was dismissed by the Department for Work and Pensions. The tribunal ruled that the doctor's belief that gender is determined by biological sex was not a protected belief under the Equality Act 2010 and therefore, the dismissal was not discriminatory.
Here we take a look at answers to some of the most fundamental questions that employers may have about religion and belief in the workplace:
Is there a difference between religion and a belief?
The Equality Act 2010 is the law in which both the terms ‘religion’ and ‘belief’ are included as protected characteristics - but they have different meanings [4 cited 18.4.23]
Religion typically refers to organised systems of faith and worship, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism.
Belief refers to a personal, philosophical or non-religious worldview, such as atheism, humanism, or environmentalism. For example, three years ago an employment tribunal ruled that ethical veganism is a philosophical belief that is protected by law against discrimination [5 cited 18.4.23]
The Equality Act legally protects employees from discrimination on the basis of religion or belief, regardless of if it is a traditional religion or a non-religious belief.
The Act does not prioritise one belief or religion over another, as all are similarly protected from discrimination.
What is religion or belief discrimination?
It is when an individual is treated differently because of their religion or belief, or lack of religion or belief, in one of the situations covered by the Equality Act [6 cited 18.4.23]
The treatment could be a one-off action or as a result of a rule or policy. It does not have to be intentional to be unlawful. Different forms of discrimination are:
- Direct discrimination: treating someone less favourably because of their religion or belief system, such as not hiring someone because of their religion.
- Indirect discrimination: putting in place a rule or policy that has a disproportionate impact on people of a particular religion or belief, such as a dress code that prohibits headscarves or turbans.
- Harassment: behaviour that creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment for someone because of their religion or belief, such as mocking someone's religious dress or beliefs.
- Victimisation: treating someone unfairly because they have made a complaint about religious discrimination or supported someone who has.
It is important to note that discrimination does not have to be intentional to be unlawful. As an employer you are under a duty to prevent it and promote equality in the workplace.
Any discrimination complaint should be taken seriously, investigated fairly and addressed without unreasonable delay.
Different beliefs have different celebrations, so are employees entitled to time off for them?
They can request time off for religious festivals, but they do not have an automatic right to it.
But any such request should be carefully considered alongside any impact the employee’s absence may have on the business.
It is reasonable to refuse a request if it will cause undue disruption, which it is more likely to do with smaller organisations or if the employee has specific skills.
If an employee wants to use annual leave to cover the time off, they should be allowed to do so unless there is a good reason why a holiday cannot be taken at that particular time e.g. demands on the business or workforce are high.
As an employer you should consider making reasonable accommodations for employees' religious beliefs, which may include allowing time off for religious festivals.
Whether or not time off is allowed for religious festivals may already be covered in existing policies. If you do not have such a policy it is worth considering drawing one up if necessary.
Discuss any request by an employee for time off to celebrate their religion or belief if you have any uncertainty regarding if it can be accommodated. Staff should also be encouraged to give advance notice of any request.
Employees may be entitled to time off for other reasons related to their religion, such as bereavement leave or attending religious ceremonies or events, depending on their employment contract and company policies.
Do I have to allow employees time to pray at work because I have heard some employers have prayer rooms?
No, you do not have to automatically allow them to pray while working.
It is simply not possible to allow time for prayers in every working environment, but you should reasonably consider such a request to ensure you do not discriminate against the employee.
There is no legal requirement to provide a prayer room, which is a designated space where employees can pray or engage in other religious observances during work hours.
In deciding whether or not you should have such a facility, you should consider the religious needs of employees and the impact on the business.
Providing a prayer room can help to create a diverse and inclusive workplace, which can be beneficial for employee morale and productivity.
Should I allow employees to talk about their religion or belief in the workplace?
You can implement policies which limit discussions, but any such restrictions on freedom of speech or the expression of religion or belief must be proportionate to your aim of protecting the rights of others or your reputation.
A complete ban on any discussion about religion or belief is unlikely to be proportionate or practical, especially in cases involving particular festivals.
Restricting discussion about religion or belief can be justified in some working environments e.g. teachers and adults working in schools should only discuss religion or belief with pupils if invited to do so and doctors and nurses must also be cautious about expressing personal views or beliefs to patients.
Always make sure work events are inclusive, be aware of harassment towards or from employees and take a zero-tolerance approach and be respectful of an employee’s practices .