Are religious people really suffering workplace discrimination?

This week’s Mandy Rice-Davies award goes to a study which found ‘substantial’ religious discrimination in the workplace. The evidence? Religious people told the researchers they had been discriminated against.

What sort of discrimination did they suffer?

[The research] also found new examples of unfair treatment of Christians, with many telling researchers issues they had with being made to work on a Sunday.

So that’s discrimination is it? A lot of people have issues with working on a Sunday. For many, shift-work is the only work they can get. A lot of them would prefer to have a job which doesn’t make them work at weekends. But, alas, when you accept a job you accept the terms. At least, most people do. There are always some, though, who think that their deeply held beliefs mean that they can pick and choose which bits of their jobs they do. And, of course, for every Christian exempted from working on Sundays, another colleague has to cover their shift.

This is not, then, an example of discrimination but, as with so many religious claims, a demand for special treatment.

As well as asking people for their opinions, the researchers base their claims on a ‘review of legal cases’. Now that’s really odd because the number of religious discrimination claims lodged has remained fairly static in recent years. The Employment Tribunal statistics released yesterday show that 850 claims were brought in the year to 31 March 2012. Of these, 34 percent were settled before tribunal and only 3 percent were successful in a contested court case. In the majority of cases, the claimants lost.

If there really was ‘substantial’ religious discrimination in the workplace, would we not have seen an increase in claims and wouldn’t people be winning a lot more of them? Although religious discrimination cases generate a lot of publicity, when you look into the detail, many of the claims fall apart. The media frenzy may add to the feeling that religious people are facing persecution but there is precious little evidence of it. The courts clearly don’t think so, hence their reluctance to make awards against employers.

As every HR manager knows, there is a world of difference between feeling aggrieved and having a legitimate grievance. Lots of people feel aggrieved about all sorts of things. Many of us resent the fact that we have to work odd hours, have to travel so far, have to get up so early or even that we have to work at all. But we get on and do our jobs anyway.

Some religious people, though, think their beliefs entitle them to be treated differently. They feel aggrieved that they have to work Sundays, obey their employers’ heath and safety policies, serve alcohol to customers or deal with people they consider to be sinful. At the moment, though, the law does not class those feelings as religious discrimination. Long may it remain so.

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7 Responses to Are religious people really suffering workplace discrimination?

  1. Annabel says:

    If I believe I have a right and you do not let me exercise it, I may ‘feel’ discriminated against. In the technical sense you have exercised your discernment (which is all discrimination used to mean) to make a decision that does not suit me, or that I find myself unable to accommodate.

    If we allow religious people of any pursuasion to dictate what is appropriate in the workplace we will end up with a theocracy of some kind and that has profound implications for people in the workplace who do not want to be governed by religious considerations or are unable to comply with them.

  2. John says:

    The issue regarding working/not working particular days can result in indirect discrimination – here’s an example of a requirement to work Saturdays that discriminated against Seventh Day Adventist Christian: McDougall v Barclays Bank plc ET/3203801/09; and here’s an example of where a requirement to work Sundays did not discriminate against a Christian Mba v Mayor and Burgesses of the London Borough of Merton ET/2350743/10.

    This type of indirect discrimination is similar to where a woman who has childcaring responsibilities is discriminated against (due to her gender) by a PCP that requires everyone to work full time or every weekend (women are more likely to have childcare responsibilities), and I think it’s important to protect against it. However, provided that the employer has a good reason for the PCP in question, and acts reasonably in considering alternatives for the employee in question, it stands a very good chance of defeating an indirect discrimination claim.

    I do agree that religious discrimination cases get a disproportionate amount of coverage. This is due to a combination factors, including the subject matter; that this is (legally) a relatively new type of discrimination; and that certain media outlets and organisations use alleged religious discrimination cases as examples of their own views about religious persecution and so on.

  3. Needs2Cash says:

    It seems that feelings have become important to just about everyone:

    …this manifested itself in the formerly stiff-upper-lipped British 15 years ago after Princess Diana died.

    We seem quicker to take offense. Advocates of big government, and those who are used to the nanny state, resort to the law or some regulator when the first recourse should be a conversation with the hurtful, thoughtless or “I’m entitled” person.

    But even those who think they are entitled to hurt the feelings of others may have thin skins too.

    Hopefully, the politicians, regulators and judges will be clear that we cannot afford for them to protect our feelings.

    If we are to be less selfish we must learn to respect others so we are considerate when we express ourselves and be the change we want to see in others. Our should we just be more unfeeling?

  4. Michael Reed says:

    I think you’re slightly underestimating the extent to which equality law may require employers to adjust to employees religious views.

    Refusing the sorts of requests you mention in your last paragraph would not be direct discrimination — but they might well be indirect discrimination.

    Take requiring employees to work on Sunday. This is certainly a provision, criteria or practice, which is applied to both devout Christians and people who do not share that characteristic. But it might well put a devout Christian at a disadvantage compared with others.

    At that point the employer must show that their provision, criteria or practice is justified — in other words that it is a proportionate mean of achieving a legitimate aim. As the various cases so far show, very often employers can demonstrate this. But I’m sure their are cases where they couldn’t — or where pragmatically they decide to make the adjustment rather than run the risk.

    • Very interesting post & comments. I am confused as to what the prevailing thought is regarding Sunday working as an example. If I have 2 employees, and a requirement that someone work a Sunday each week but one claims a religious objection to working Sundays whilst the other has no religious objection but prefers not to work weekends due to the loss of time with their family do I as an employer need to give more weight to the religious objections? I hope not.

  5. Pingback: Are religious people really suffering workplace discrimination? - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  6. It does seem there is a fine balancing act that companies need to juggle with managing what an employee believes they are entitled to, and what is realistically just plain working hours that a business needs worked to operate.

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