Acas recently published new guidance on religion and belief to help employers prevent discrimination on these grounds in the workplace. To assist employers further, we’ve produced another series of “myth busters”to help separate fact from fiction in this area, all of which will be published on our website over the coming weeks. Of course, if you’re an employer and would like to discuss any of the issues touched on in these posts, please contact one of our HR consultants in confidence and without delay for some initial advice free of charge and without obligation.
Myth: An employee can refuse to do aspects of their job because of their religion or belief.
Fact: If company policy requires an employee to do something that goes against his / her religion then that policy will likely amount to a provision, criterion or practice (PCP) which is indirectly discriminatory on the grounds of religion or belief under the Equality Act 2010, unless it can be objectively justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
Let’s take an example of an employee required to work on bank holidays under the terms of his / her employment contract and refusing to do so for religious reasons. Whilst the Act does not say that employees have the right to time off for religious observance, a refusal to grant Christian employees time off for any of the bank holidays with religious significance could amount to indirect religious discrimination if it places them at a particular disadvantage when compared with employees of other faiths, or non-religious employees.
However, if the employer can present a compelling business reason for refusing any request for leave for religious observance, the discriminatory effect of the policy may be justifiable as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, in which case it would not be unlawful. That said, Acas recommend that employers are sympathetic to such requests where it is reasonable and practical for the employees to be away from work, and they have sufficient holiday entitlement to cover such time off.Well drafted policies that clearly define the employer’s procedures / expectations and also provide for a degree of flexibility according to individual circumstances are important in reducing the scope for discrimination claims. However, as with the dress code violations dealt with in our last article in this series, equally important is dealing with such matters on a case-by-case basis and engaging in discussion with the employee concerned in order to put refusals in context and better enable the employer to make a fully informed decision.
Chris Nagel, Director / Head of HR at EML, comments:
“Key to the safe application of PCPs is awareness and common sense. Employers need to be mindful of potential mitigating factors when it comes to non-compliance. In order for this to happen, employees need to be aware of what’s required of them and managers need to be aware of circumstances in which contraventions may be excusable. Whilst the former is achievable by well written and effectively communicated policies / procedures, the latter usually requires training and regular refreshers.”