Common sense approach needed for religion and belief at work

Published: 02 Dec 2016

Businesses need to take a common sense approach to managing religion and belief in the workplace, David Isaac, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said today.

A review of religion and belief law, published today, finds the legislation is generally effective but a lack of understanding of the law has led to misinterpretation and confusion.

David Isaac, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission said:

“Our review finds that the law works well. There are a lot of myths that have arisen due to misunderstanding of legal requirements.

“Employers actions shouldn’t be governed by a fear of causing offence.

“Our guidance will help managers and businesses reach decisions and approach sensitive discussions in the right way.”

The new guidance, also published today, will help managers to navigate their way through the issues and decide the appropriate steps they should take. 

It highlights the importance of thinking ahead when designing company policy, for example suggesting guidance to managers on different religious approaches when dealing with bereavement policy.

The new guidance has been developed with businesses and addresses a number of issues that employers have been asked about by staff, providing practical answers to many common requests. Examples of common questions businesses wanted answering include:

  • Can I arrange an office Christmas party?
  • Do I have to allow employees time off to pray in the workplace during work hours?
  • Do I have to agree to an employee’s request not to work on Sundays, for religious reasons, when our business is open seven days a week?
  • Does the workplace canteen need to cater for the food requirements of employees with various religions or beliefs?
  • Can I insist that an employee removes a religious symbol or type of religious dress if it breaches our health and safety policy?

Praising the guidance to employers, Marie van der Zyl, Vice-President of the Board of Deputies, said:

“The Board of Deputies of British Jews commends the Equality and Human Rights Commission for producing this suite of materials which demonstrate how religion and belief requests can be accommodated, to the benefit of both employers and employees. The materials are comprehensive and thorough, and we hope they will support an atmosphere where diversity can be a real asset to the workplace.”

In collaboration with Acas and the TUC, the Commission has prepared online training modules to provide direct advice to line managers and union representatives on managing religion and belief at work.

Jill Coyne, Acas Senior Guidance Adviser, said:

“This new Equality and Human Rights Commission guidance will help employers and their line managers understand the basics around managing religion in the workplace and avoid falling on the wrong side of the law, which could result in potentially costly workplace disputes.

“Acas has collaborated with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to produce a new e-learning module so line managers and staff can have the opportunity to develop the knowledge to deal with this challenging and sensitive area.

“If employers and employees take practical steps to understand the diversity of religions and beliefs and prevent discrimination in workplaces, then their organisations can reap the many business benefits from tapping into the knowledge and skills of staff from a wide range of backgrounds.”

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