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How Far Should Bosses Accommodate the Religious Beliefs of their Employees?

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I’m not sure when, but I must have outed myself as a dirty atheist at some point on this blog, as there have been comments telling me that I am mistaken. Nevertheless, despite the example set by Richard Dawkins, I don’t condemn believers outright, and I do believe that they are entitled to a modicum of respect, even in their working lives.

While laws obviously differ from territory to territory, the UK has equality legislation, whereby it would be unseemly for one religion to be favoured over another. Despite this, because HRM Elizabeth II is not only the head of state but also the head of the Church of England, it does mean that England at least is nominally Christian. Public holidays are arranged around Christian feasts and saints’ days, and everyone — no matter what their faith — knows when to expect business to be slow or entirely absent. Holidays from any other religion may fall at inconvenient times, but how is the non-discriminatory business owner to cope with this?

I won’t lie: I’ve been incredibly lucky to work for some amazingly tolerant firms. One place had two prayer areas set aside, according to sex, so that Muslim employees could pray during the day without males and females mixing. Another employer would offer the job and on your first day ask when your important religious holidays were so that you could be rostered as off-duty. As far as religious tolerance is concerned, I am a spoiled brat. Especially so when you think about the overtime I managed to pick up while other employees were unavailable.

But how is a responsible boss supposed to handle all this? You could, of course, say that you company doesn’t recognise any days aside from weekends, which has also happened in one place I worked. Alternatively, you could offer employees days off on the days that are most important to them. At the moment, the UK is still (nominally) Christian, so one could get away with offering overtime to any employees who volunteered to work then. Provided anyone, of whatever faith, is allowed to take up the slots you’d be OK.

The difficulty comes with “minority” holidays, which can affect more than you’d ever presume. If you think I’m joking, try catching a taxi in Birmingham over Ramadan. Businesses find themselves with half, possibly three quarters of their workforce off work for religious reasons, and can’t do anything about it. I’ve learned my lesson, and now book ahead, but it does serve to highlight how dependent one area of the city’s infrastructure is on one ethnic group.

While one doesn’t want to discriminate, it does seem that a blended workforce is the way to go. Don’t ask a potential employee whether they are deeply religious when interviewing them; they will give you that impression on their own. I know I did from my godless heathen vibes. As far as I’m concerned, the more diverse the workforce, the less disruption to processes, because there will always be someone to cover a particular function.

I could be wrong. For all I know, my evil poster and the behaviour of my youth means that I have protected myself from meeting a terrible influence. I prefer though, to imagine it might give pause for thought. Knowing why some people always provide the fish while others always eat it is an important lesson. And it’s one I can’t teach without being convicted for kidnapping.

[Image by Amarand Agasi]



  1. Tanenbaum says:

    Having a diverse workforce helps with more than keeping the business running during holiday periods (although it certainly does that as well). It helps the company serve diverse clientele, since the workforce reflects the diversity of the population.

    You *have* worked in some places with impressive religious accommodation policies.

  2. Stephanie Migot says:

    That’s a very good point about how a diverse workplace can also be good in serving a variety of different customers or clientele. There’s been a couple of cases I can think of recently where a company has done exactly the opposite and has insisted on having a relatively homogeneous workforce, which has ended up in bad publicity for them. Far better to have a more inclusive approach in my opinion.

    And you’re right: I have worked for some companies that have some very good policies! I think the bosses decided it was better to make a few concessions rather than risk a lawsuit further down the road.

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