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Religious Accommodations: Going Beyond the Law Makes Business Sense                |    Free Hiring Policy

De Minimis Standard Explained
Flexibility, Understanding Are Key
Be Flexible for Creative Accommodations


Your legal obligation to accommodate employee religious beliefs is relatively easy to satisfy.  You can, however, easily build points toward becoming an employer of choice by going beyond the minimum requirements. Get your FREE access to this and 100's of FREE HR resources today.


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An employee asks for Saturdays off to observe the Sabbath.  Another says her religion mandates headscarves for women, regardless of the company dress code.  Another refuses to work overtime because he must be home before sundown.  How far does an employer have to go to accommodate these types of requests?  As explained below, your legal duty to accommodate religious requests is minimal.  However, many smart employers are responding proactively to the growing ethnic and cultural diversity of the workforce and are going beyond the strict letter of the law in accommodating employee religious requests.  The payoff in doing this is much more than reduced legal exposure.  It is good business.  It bolsters individual identity and can foster a measurably more positive and productive work environment. 

De Minimis Standard Explained                                         [Download Free Policies]

Your duty to accommodate employees’ religious practices is based in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), which prohibits workplace discrimination based on religion.  According to Title VII, “religion” includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as moral or ethical beliefs sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) Guidelines on Discrimination Because of Religion indicates that as long as these beliefs are “sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views,” they may fall under the protection of Title VII.  In addition, “the fact that no religious group espouses such beliefs or the fact that the religious group to which the individual professes to belong may not accept such belief,” has no bearing on whether the belief should be classified as religious in nature. 

Title VII requires employers to make reasonable accommodation for employees’ and applicants’ religious practices as long as that accommodation does not result in “undue hardship” for the organization.  The meaning of “undue hardship” is murky.  Neither Title VII nor the EEOC enforcement guidelines provide a specific definition for the term.  Fortunately for employers, the Supreme Court has defined “undue hardship” as any costs greater than de minimis (i.e., a nominal cost) in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977).  Examples of costs that courts have found to exceed the de minimis standard include accommodations that would require the employer to pay overtime to replacement workers, that create staffing shortages, or that circumvent the seniority system.  In other words, in most cases, the courts take a relatively relaxed view of employer obligations regarding religious accommodations. 

(As a practical point of comparison, the “undue hardship” test for religious accommodation under Title VII is much less stringent than the “undue hardship” test for accommodating disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  In contrast to the de minimis standard, the ADA defines the term to mean a significant difficulty or expense arising from accommodating the disability.)

Flexibility, Understanding Are Key

Using the de minimis standard, employers have broad latitude to refuse religious accommodations.  However, the adoption of flexible policies toward employee religious needs and beliefs often makes more sense than simply adhering to the minimum legal requirements.  While following the letter of the law may provide some insurance in any later court battle, it does little to encourage employee loyalty and productivity.

Developing and administering effective religious accommodations can be challenging, however.  Employers often are unfamiliar with the tenets of various religions and may suspect that some employees will use religious accommodation requests to avoid distasteful duties or work hours.  Yet, most employee requests are based on genuine religious beliefs that can be accommodated with no meaningful disruption to the workplace.  The following suggestions are designed to help you become more flexible in your approach to religious accommodations.

1.  Communicate your commitment to the prevention of religious discrimination.  According to data from the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, many employers have work to do in this area.  Two thirds of the Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and Shintoists surveyed by the Center said they have either witnessed or experienced some form of religious bias or prejudice in their workplace. Disturbingly, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim respondents not only said they have experienced religious discrimination, but they also indicated that they expect it.  To combat this perception, you should develop and enforce policies against religious discrimination and make sure you are prepared to accommodate reasonable requests.

2.  Become better educated about the different religions of the world.  While Christianity remains the most common religion in the United States, new religions and belief systems are emerging in American workplaces.  This is a result, in large part, of changing immigration patterns.  Newcomers increasingly hail from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and they are bringing with them unfamiliar religions such as Shintoism, Hinduism, neo-Paganism, and Yoruba.  At the same time, the number of Muslims in the U.S. is swelling; Islam will soon surpass Judaism as the second-most practiced religion in this country.

When you are approached by an employee for an accommodation, it helps to know at least a little about the religious practices in question.  Several resources are listed in the “For More Information” box, below, that provide details about different religions and their beliefs.  Also, don’t be afraid to ask employees to explain their religions and need for accommodation.  Employees should appreciate your interest and may be able to help you come up with creative solutions.

3.  Anticipate employees’ religious needs.  Most religious accommodation requests involve diet, clothing, and prayer.  Simple exceptions to your normal dress, attendance, and break policies may go a long way to accommodating religious beliefs with minimal disruptions to the workplace.  For example, consider the following suggestions:

• Allow flexible work schedules during special periods of religious observance such as Ramadan, Yom Kippur, and Good Friday. 

• Offer a quiet place for people of any faith to pray and allow breaks to be taken for this purpose. 

• Structure personal leave days so that they can be used for religious observances.  

• Expand food choices in the company cafeteria and snack areas when demand justifies providing them to accommodate religious dietary requirements.

By taking these proactive steps to anticipate employee religious needs, you may actually be able to minimize the number of individual requests for accommodations.

4.  Educate managers and staff.  Include religion as a component in diversity training.  Explain the legal requirements for religious accommodations as well as the company’s philosophy on flexible standards.  Provide examples of appropriate accommodations such as flextime, job reassignment, and dress code exceptions so that managers are aware of the full range of possibilities.  Educate supervisors about the key tenets of the faiths known to be held by your workers that may result in workplace requests, particularly as they apply to diet, clothing, and prayer requirements. 

Be Flexible for Creative Accommodations

Yes, some employees may abuse their religious protections as a means to get better working hours or to avoid unpleasant assignments.  But you should not fall into the trap of setting policy to weed out a few abusers at the expense of your hard core of conscientious workers.  Usually, the majority of workers requesting a religious accommodation do so because they want to express sincerely held beliefs.  You can protect against frivolous requests by asking probing questions.  If you consider each accommodation request on a case-by-case basis, you can learn to spot those that are less than sincere.  This way you can deal directly with potential abusers while maintaining the flexibility to be creative in working with a more diverse work-force.  Your willingness to recognize legitimate individual needs can be an important distinction that makes you stand out as an employer of choice.

For more information on EEOC Guidelines on Religious Discrimination,  go to

For information on The Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, go to

For religion etiquette questions and information on different religions, see BeliefNet,

For resources on world religions, go to


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This article is not intended as legal advice. Readers are encouraged to seek appropriate legal or other professional advice.

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