With religious festivals of all faiths spread throughout the year, employers need to be aware of workers’ rights.
Alex Pearce, employment lawyer at Pinney Talfourd Solicitors in Essex provides some guidance for employers in this sensitive area.
The Equality Act 2010 made it unlawful to discriminate against someone because of their religion or belief. This protects employees, contract workers, partners and office-holders, and covers the areas of recruitment, terms and conditions, promotion, training and dismissal.
Any religion, religious belief or philosophical belief is covered by the act. This includes all recognised religions and other beliefs and even workers with no particular religion or belief, such as humanists and atheists, are protected.
Employers can be held responsible if one employee discriminates against another in the course of employment, unless they have taken reasonable steps to prevent the conduct from taking place.
A worker who believes you have discriminated against them, harassed or victimised them because of their religion or belief can bring a claim in an employment tribunal and, if successful, can be awarded unlimited compensation.
Some employees may wish to wear certain items, such as turbans, hijabs, crosses or bangles, at work for religious reasons. If you ban them, this can be discrimination unless your requirement not to wear them can be objectively justified, such as for health and safety reasons.
In January 2013 the European Court of Human Rights upheld a claim from a member of British Airways check-in staff who had not been permitted to wear a cross at work because it breached uniform policy.
From 1 October 2015, Sikhs wearing turbans are exempt from wearing safety helmets at all workplaces. This means that Sikhs do not have to wear protective headgear in workplaces such as construction sites, warehouses, factories and company vehicles. Those working in the armed forces and the emergency services do still have to wear head protection.
If you require an employee to work on a religious holiday, this will normally be discrimination unless it can be justified. You should try to grant the employee’s request for annual leave, if they have enough holiday entitlement and it is reasonable for them to be absent. Shop and betting workers have the right to refuse to work on a Sunday.
There is no legal obligation to do this but, if requested, you should try to make a quiet place available, as long as this does not impact on other employees.
If other employees have smoking breaks of a similar length, it might be difficult for you to justify a refusal. However, if other employees are not allowed to take breaks, you might be justified in requiring the employee to make up the time, at the start or end of the working day or at lunchtime.
If a Muslim employee asks for time off each Friday lunchtime to attend mosque, you may need to look at the request carefully and consider whether it can be granted without too much impact on your business and other staff.
By way of example, it is likely to be discriminatory to require a Hindu care worker to attend a Christian service for residents of a care home. It would be difficult to justify this and employers should allow employees of other faiths not to attend a religious service.
You are not obliged to do this but it would be sensible to have an alternative available, such as vegetarian food. Non-alcoholic drinks should always be provided to cater for those who do not drink alcohol for any reason and you should be sensitive about arranging social events in venues that might make some employees feel uncomfortable because of their religious beliefs.
For example, a Muslim shelf-stacker may ask not to handle alcohol. You will need to weigh up the situation carefully and consider whether other employees can cover for the employee. A tribunal will look at whether they were made aware when they were recruited that this was part of the job and whether it was reasonable to ask other employees to carry out part of their duties. A small convenience store may find it easier to justify a refusal than a large supermarket.
There is nothing to stop you presenting employees with bottles of wine as an incentive or bonus or giving them hampers at Christmas that contain pork products or alcohol. However, you should be prepared to replace such gifts with an alternative, such as vouchers, if an employee refuses to accept them for religious reasons.
This is a sensitive area, as there are no hard and fast rules and each situation has to be assessed individually.
This article was written by Alex Pearce of our Dispute Resolution Department at Pinney Talfourd Solicitors. The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. Specific legal advice should be taken on each individual matter. This article is based on the law as at December 2015.