Managers are having to accommodate workers’ religious beliefs while taking care in expressing their own.
BOSSES all over the Western world have been warned. Unless they make allowances for the religious faiths of their ever more diverse workforces, they will suffer lawsuits, official rebukes and protests from staff. Employees increasingly expect to be able, for example, to dress in accordance with their faith while at work, and be given appropriate times and places for prayer.
The latest admonition came last month in new guidelines from America’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, pointing out the steady rise in religious-discrimination cases (3,721 last year, up from 1,709 in 1997) and setting out what that means. For example, businesses must respect the personal styles of their staff— Rastafarian dreadlocks, say — if these are inspired by faith. And religiously attired workers must not be hidden away to avoid upsetting customers of a different faith.
European firms are still absorbing the impact of last year’s victory by a British Airways worker (pictured) who won damages at the European Court of Human Rights after she was denied, temporarily, the right to wear a cross with her uniform. In advice updated last month, Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission urges firms to meet religious needs, even if expressed by only one employee, as long as they do not infringe the rights of others.
Among other high-profile cases last year, Abercrombie & Fitch, an American clothes retailer, paid $71,000 to settle cases brought by two Muslim women (an ex-employee and a job applicant) who said they were victimised for wearing headscarves. And Tesco, a British grocer, was rebuked by an employment tribunal after two Muslim employees complained that access to the prayer-room had been restricted.
The pressure on bosses to let employees display their beliefs more openly comes at a time when they are having to be more guarded about expressing their own. On April 3rd Brendan Eich resigned as boss of Mozilla, an American internet-software firm, following a row over his earlier support for a campaign to ban gay marriage in California. And in 2012 civil-rights groups called for a boycott of Chick-fil-A, a fast-food chain, after a senior executive publicly opposed gay marriage.
The Dividing Line and Cultural Relitivism
The dividing line, it seems, is between indicating one’s faith and spelling out what it means in practice: devout Jews or Muslims, say, may wear kippahs or hijabs at work, but any manifestation of traditionalist religious views on morality would still be unacceptable—such as shunning colleagues of the opposite sex, or expressing disapproval of homosexuality.
Multinational firms have the added difficulty of coping with different expectations in each of the countries where they operate. A 2009 survey of 23 countries compiled for Ius Laboris, a global alliance of law firms, found that all had legal or constitutional bans on religious discrimination, but they varied in how they defined religion. Britain stands out for the range of personal beliefs that may be deemed worthy of protection: Wiccans, for example, can wear their pentacles with pride.
Firms stung by criticism and legal cases, such as BA and Abercrombie, have changed their rules to meet employees’ expectations. But the job keeps getting harder. In America foreign-born workers are now nearly 15% of the total, up from 5% in 1970, says Joyce Dubensky of the Tanenbaum Centre for Interreligious Understanding, in New York. Their bosses, she says, must adapt not only to more faiths, but new mixtures: Latino workers may follow Catholic and indigenous beliefs at the same time. The upside is that “well-managed diversity is a magnet for talent.”
Even in countries where the official climate is secular, practical responses tend to prevail. The French version of secularism lays down that the public sector is religion-free, but private bodies have a somewhat freer hand. A state agency, the Observatory on Secularism, offers advice to firms, mixing warnings against open religious discrimination (punishable by jail, in theory) with assurances that companies can restrict proselytising by staff.
One French firm, a recycling company called Paprec, said in February that it was introducing a secularist regime (banning conspicuous religious symbols, as French schools do) by agreement with its 4,000 workers. But Nathalie Luca, a French scholar of religion, calls this case an outlier; most businesses are reacting flexibly when presented with religious demands, such as Muslim prayer rooms. In French-speaking Quebec, likewise, the private sector has responded sceptically to an effort by the Canadian province’s government to copy Gallic secularism.
All this does not mean that any case brought against an employer on religious grounds will prevail. Last October a meat-packing firm in America was vindicated by a court in its refusal to grant extra prayer breaks to about 200 Somali Muslim workers, at times that varied according to the rules for worship during Ramadan. The company tried to allow this but non-Muslim staff protested that the concessions were going too far, and it was facing costly disruptions to output. The judge endorsed the firm’s stance on the ground that the Civil Rights Act says religion must be accommodated as long as that does not cause “undue hardship” to the employer.