Skip Navigation 
Religion In The Workplace: Make a Good-Faith Effort to Accommodate

By: Patricia Digh , RealWork
Source: Center Collection
Originally published in HR Magazine, December 1998
Published: November 2001
Learn about how religion and religious differences can affect the new American workplace.  This article was written specifically for human resource professionals to better understand, respect and accommodate the spiritual lives of their staff but it will also be useful for association professionals engaged in leadership positions, staff and department management, human resources and administration.

Religious devotion and diversity are on the rise in the United States, and the combination of these trends is creating new challenges and new demands for employers.

As a result, handling future requests for religious accommodation may require HR professionals to demonstrate greater sensitivity, tolerance and understanding of various religious beliefs.

Unfortunately, some employers may not be prepared to accommodate the many forms that religious accommodation can take.

When it comes to adapting to religious holidays, the majority of HR professionals appear to have gotten the message. In a 1997 survey of 750 human resource professionals conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, 68 percent of respondents said they offer flexible schedules for religious observances.

With other forms of religious accommodation, however, employers don't seem as proactive. For example, of those responding to the survey, only

  • 19 percent included religion in diversity training programs.
  • 18 percent trained their managers in religious accommodations.
  • 15 percent provided space or time for religious observance, study or discussion.
  • 13 percent said their companies accommodated religious attire.

This lack of preparation for the gamut of religious accommodations stands in direct conflict with a religious groundswell that has been seizing the nation.

A Nation Gets Religion
Americans have become an increasingly religious people: Since 1900, the nation's church membership has grown twice as fast as the population.

In addition, Americans appear to hold a high degree of religious devotion. According to Gallup's Princeton Religion Research Center, 90 percent of American adults say religion is either very important or fairly important in their lives; only 9 percent say religion is not very important.

In fact, adherents of more than 1,500 primary religious organizations now worship in the United States. Of these, more than 900 are Christian denominations. More than 100 Hindu denominations have come to the United States since the mid-1960s, and more than 75 forms of Buddhism currently exist here, according to the Encyclopedia of American Religions (5th edition, 1996, Gale Research).

Given the fervor and increasing diversity of Americans' religious beliefs, it is probably not surprising that charges of religious discrimination in the workplace have jumped 43 percent since the beginning of the decade, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Comm ission. Between 1996 and 1997 alone, charges of religion-related discrimination jumped 9 percent, to 1,709.

The increasing number of legal claims surrounding religion has not gone unnoticed in the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. For example, in August 1997, President Clinton reasserted the right of all federal employees to express their religious beliefs in the government workplace. And the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA), which is likely to be reintroduced in the new Congress convening next month, would amend Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to increase employers' responsibility to accommodate workers' religious beliefs. The proposed amendment focuses primarily on accommodating employees' desire to take time off to practice their religion.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), one of the bill's co-sponsors, says current legal protection has been "too narrowly interpreted by the courts, giving employers leeway to refuse religious accommodation." As the law now reads, any accommodation that involves more than a minimum expense or inconvenience to the employer could be considered an "undue hardship," thus justifying refusal.

The bill would require employers to make an "affirmative and bona fide effort" to accommodate employees' religious practices. It would also more strictly define "undue hardship" based on

  • The cost of lost productivity (retraining, rehiring or transferring other employees to do the work of an absent employee).
  • The size of the employer.
  • The number of employees that would require accommodation. 
  • The difficulty and cost for employers that have more than one facility or place of business.

In his October 1997 testimony to the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, Kerry stated, "For many religiously observant Americans, the greater peril to their ability to carry out their religious faith on a day-to-day basis indeed comes from the rigidity and inflexibility of employers."

The Spirit of Accommodation
Kerry's comments show that when employers don't show respect for employees' religious beliefs, elected officials are likely to step in and force them to.

Clearly, a respectful approach can go a long way toward dealing with religion in the workplace. HR professionals should always show that they respect the beliefs of their employees and should avoid judging those beliefs. As a sign of respect, and to help understand the importance of any given request, HR professionals should try to become familiar with the fundamental tenets of several major religions.

The following alphabetical list of some major religions in the United States is an introduction to-not an exhaustive treatment of-these religions. Having this information can help HR managers anticipate accommodation requests and avoid situations that might spark religious conflicts for your employees.

(Thanks to Pat Fischetti, author of Ethnic Cultures of America and publisher of The Ethnic Cultures of America Calendar, Educational Extension Services, Washington, D.C., for his assistance in compiling this information.)

This 150-year-old religion originated in Persia (Iran) and has more than 110,000 adherents in the United States. Baha'i teaches that there is only one God and that all religions are one. Founded by the Prophet Baha'u'llah, it does not tolerate sex outside marriage or the drinking of alcohol. While practitioners are allowed to vote, they are not allowed to hold political office.

This religion has no clergy-decisions are made by the "spiritual assemblies," and services are made up of "Firesides," which generally consist of gatherings at members' homes.

The Baha'i calendar has 19 months of 19 days each. There is a period of fasting from March 2 to March 20. In addition, there are "Nine Holy Days," during which work is forbidden. Three of these days occur during the Ridvan (pronounced "riz-wan" and meaning festival), which takes place from April 21 to May 2.

Buddhism is more than 2,500 years old and has more than 2,000 sects. It can be either a religion or a philosophy. It teaches that "the cessation of suffering, which is caused by desire, is enlightenment." This enlightened state is called Nirvana.

Meditation and chanting are important to Buddhists, although not all Buddhists do either or both.

There are estimated to be as many as 665 million practicing Buddhists worldwide and 5 million in the United States. Buddhists are increasing in number in the United States because of increased immigration from countries such as Japan, China and Vietnam.

Tibetan Buddhism is considered the most authentic form because of Tibet's long isolation; the Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists.

Holidays for sects from Myanmar, Cambodia, India, Laos, Thailand and Sri Lanka include "Versakha Puja" or "Buddha Day," which is the most sacred day and falls on the full moon of the sixth lunar month; and "Magha Puja," which falls on the full moon of the third lunar month.

For the Mahayana sect from China, Japan, Tibet, Korea and Vietnam, holidays include "Nirvana Day," which celebrates the original Buddha's attainment of Enlightenment and "Bodhi Day," which celebrates the enlightenment of Buddha under the Bodhi tree.

Christian Science
This Christian denomination was founded by Mary Baker Eddy in 1879 and is officially known as The First Church of Christ, Scientist.

Services are held on Sundays and Wednesdays. Sunday services consist of prayer, and reading from the Bible and from Science and Health with Keys to the Scriptures, which was written by Eddy.

This religion "acknowledges that man is saved through Christ, through Truth, Life and Love as demonstrated by the Galilean Prophet in healing the sick and overcoming sin and death," according to Science and Health with Keys to the Scriptures. Christian Scientists use the capitalized words Truth, Life, Love, Mind, Spirit, Soul and Principle as synonyms for God. Christian Science discourages the consumption of tobacco, alcohol and drugs and relies primarily on prayer for healing.

The First Church of Christ, Scientist publishes the Christian Science Monitor, which reaches 120 countries, and celebrates no special holidays.

Christianity (Protestant and Catholic)
Most Americans identify themselves as Christian, including Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians and Catholics.

In general, Christian denominations share basic holidays and religious principles-such as a belief in the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Holidays include Christmas (Dec. 25), as well as the following, which are movable holy days: Good Friday (the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ), Easter Sunday (the resurrection of Jesus Christ) and Ash Wednesday (which marks the beginning of Lent, a period of repentance).

The calendars of Christian churches celebrate a year-long cycle of feasts and holy days that commemorate the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Church of Scientology
Founded in 1954 by L. Ron Hubbard in Washington, D.C., Scientology was declared an official religion by the IRS in 1993. It is practiced in "Spiritual Centers" in 107 countries.

This church focuses on "Dianetics," a process through which believers progress, via counseling and study, to a desired condition called "clear," which is "free of all painful memories and undesirable thought."

Eastern Orthodox
This religion split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054 AD over the issue of the authority of the Roman Catholic Pope. The Spiritual Leader of the church, called the "Ecumenical Patriarch," is based in Istanbul, Turkey (ancient Constantinople).

The Eastern Orthodox religion is traditional and hierarchical. The use of icons is prevalent. Icons are considered the "channels" through which prayers travel upward to God. Services are called "Divine Liturgies."

Eastern Orthodox is the predominant religion of Eastern Europe. In the United States there are approximately 5 million members; the largest subset-2 million members-belongs to the Greek Orthodox church.

The most important holiday in the Eastern Orthodox church is Easter Sunday, which is a movable holiday and may take place on different days each year. Christmas is celebrated on Jan. 7, according to the Julian Calendar.

Other holidays of importance include New Year's Day (St. Basil's), the Epiphany (Jan. 6), the First Day of Lent (the Monday before Ash Wednesday), Ascension Day (40 days after Easter) and Pentecost (50 days after Easter).

This religion is based on a collection of writings called the "Vedas." The Vedas do not represent dogma but rather observances of the laws of nature.

According to How to Be a Perfect Stranger: A Guide to Etiquette in Other People's Religious Ceremonies (Edited by Arthur Magida, 1996, Jewish Lights Publishing), Hindus believe that four disciplines, or yogas, lead to enlightenment. These four yogas are Janana yoga (gathering the intellect to cut through illusions); Bhakti yoga (directing one's love toward God); Kharma yoga (selfless service toward others); and Raja yoga (which incorporates the yogas listed above into a unified discipline).

Many Hindus refrain from eating meat and avoid drinking alcohol. They worship in temples where anyone-Hindu or not-is welcome to pray.

Hindu holidays are movable and are calculated according to the stages of the moon. Hindu holidays listed in the 1999 Honoring Differences calendar include Lohri, Vasanta Panchami, Holi, Vaisakhi, Ganesh Chaturthi, Durga Puja, Karva Chauth and Diwali. This list is not comprehensive. Further, there may be variances in when and how these holidays are celebrated, notes the calendar's publisher, ProGroup Inc. of Minneapolis, Minn.

This religion is based on the Koran, which is the word of God as given directly to Mohammed in the 7th century. Its numbers in the United States are growing and are expected to reach 6 million soon. By the year 2010, it is projected that Islam will be the second largest religion in the nation.

The Five Pillars of Islamic Faith are

  • Bearing witness to the faith.
  • Daily prayer, five times a day.
  • One pilgrimage to Mecca. 
  • Fasting during Ramadan.
  • Giving money to the poor.

Those who practice Islam are known as Muslims or Moslems. Women are taught to wear a hajib-which covers the head and neck-in public. They are not allowed to marry outside their faith.

Whether interfaith marriages are allowed for Moslem men is a subject of debate, says Nafees Ahmad of the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies in Fairfax, Va. The Koran allows Moslem men to marry people "of the book"-Jewish and Christian women, he says. However, some argue that Jews and Christians are no longer "of the book."

Muslims operate on a lunar calendar. Ramadan, an important event, lasts for a month. During this time, believers take no food, drink or tobacco until sunset and abstain from sexual relations.

Other important holidays include Id al-Fitr (which marks the end of Ramadan and commonly lasts three days), Haij (the first day of a pilgrimage to Mecca), and Hijra (which celebrates the New Year).

Note: Not all Arab Americans are Muslims. People of Arabic descent practice a number of religions, including Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The term "Arab," like "Hispanic," describes an ethnic or cultural identity. The term "Moslem" or "Jewish" describes a religious affiliation. Not all Arabs are Muslims; neither are all Muslims, Arabs.

Further, Muslims should not be confused with Louis Farrakhan's "Nation of Islam." The two groups are different.

Jehovah's Witnesses
Founded in the 1870s, this religion does extensive missionary work and demands unconditional obedience to God. Its worship centers are called "Kingdom Halls."

Jehovah's Witnesses do not celebrate holidays or birthdays. They oppose abortion and premarital sex. They accept as members only those who are willing to conform their lives to the Bible's moral standards.

The Jewish faith believes in a single God, and the base of the religion is the "Torah"-the five books of Moses. The "Talmud" is the commentary that accompanies the Torah.

There are four major branches of Judaism: orthodox, conservative, reconstructionist and reform. Kosher laws spell out the dietary rules and restrictions observed with different levels of compliance, depending on the individual's position along the continuum of orthodox (traditional) to reform (liberal).

Judaism follows a lunar calendar, so holiday dates change each year. All holidays, and the Sabbath-one of the holiest days-begin and end at sundown.

Important holidays in the Jewish faith include Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). During these holidays, Jews spend the day in prayer at the synagogue.

Other holidays include Chanukah, Sukkot, Shavuot, Simchat Torah and Passover. Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, lasts eight days; it is a celebratory time when homes are decorated with menorahs (candelabras with nine candles) and children receive presents. Sukkot is an eight-day celebration of the harvest. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai and the spring harvest. Simchat Torah celebrates completion of the annual reading of the Torah. Passover celebrations-which commemorate the Jewish people's escape from slavery in Egypt-are mainly observed at home and have special services called the seder.

Called the "Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints," the Mormon religion is generally conservative by popular standards.

Adherents to the Mormon faith do not smoke, drink alcohol or consume caffeine. The church opposes abortion, divorce and premarital sex. It also has a strong tithing policy. The Mormon church has an active missionary element. Mormon missions usually last for two years. They are usually served by college-age adults but may also be served by retired couples.

The Mormon church is growing quickly. Total world membership has doubled every 15 years since 1945 and is currently estimated to be 10 million. In the United States, Mormons are heavily concentrated in Utah.

Important religious holidays include Christmas (Dec. 25), Easter (a movable holy day) and Pioneer Day (July 24). Pioneer Day celebrates the day in 1847 when Brigham Young and his followers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. The day is marked by parades and rodeos and is granted as a day off by many Utah businesses.

Contrary to what some people believe, Pagans do not worship Satan. Instead, this group believes in the "Law of Threefold," which basically states that people's good and bad deeds return to them three times.

This religion includes witches, druids, mystic Christians and shamans-who are intermediaries between the natural and supernatural.

Pagans revere nature. They also use magic and see "through time." They worship many male and female gods.

Seventh-Day Adventist
Founded in the United States in 1863, Seventh-Day Adventists have 6.2 million members worldwide. This church, however, is growing faster overseas than in the United States.

Seventh-Day Adventists observe Saturday as the Sabbath-which is their only holy day. They have modified kosher food laws and tend to concentrate their efforts on health care. Currently, there is an ongoing debate regarding the ordination of women.

Sikhs practice a monotheistic religion that combines elements of Islam and Hinduism.

Sikhs celebrate birth and death. They believe in the "continuity of life" and the "reality of the soul." They also emphasize a personal relationship with God and believe that individuals should work for social justice.

The creation of India and Pakistan in 1947 split the Sikhs into two distinct geographical areas. Pakistan is a hostile environment for Sikhs. Punjab is their original area.

As a sign of respect for God, male Sikhs wear turbans, do not cut their hair and never shave. Female Sikhs wear the "koda," which is a steel bangle. Men take the name "Singh" and women take the name "Kaur." In the United States, many Sikhs use these as their last names.

Sikh worship centers are called "Gurdwaras." Holidays, which are based on a lunar calendar, include the birthdays of the 10 Sikh gurus (including Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion).

Another important holiday is "Vaisakhi," the Hindu Solar New Year, which celebrates the Sikhs' organization in 1689 into the "Khalsa," a military order.

Making a Decision
Having basic information on employees' religious beliefs can help you better understand requests for accommodation. But it is still up to employers to make a decision to accommodate or not.

When weighing options, make it clear to employees that they may express their religious views-provided that doing so does not impose on the religious beliefs of others.

Also make it clear that you will make reasonable efforts to accommodate employees' religious expression but that your primary concern is achieving business objectives. For example, safety should always take precedence. If religious items or apparel pose a serious risk of getting tangled in heavy machinery, they should be banned. If they do not pose a risk or cause other legitimate business risks, you should lean toward accommodation, if possible.

Accommodating for religious holidays may involve as little as posting a bulletin board notice asking for an employee to volunteer to switch shifts. Flexible arrival and departure times, flexible work breaks, granting optional or floating "personal days," exchanging lunchtime for early departure time and creating staggered work schedules may also be effective solutions.

Consultant Sondra Meyer Raile, PHR, a senior consultant with Boas Associates, an Overland Park, Kan.-based management consulting firm, suggests that HR professionals ask themselves three questions to determine their response to accommodation requests:

  • Are there reasons, other than costs involved, for granting or denying an employee's request?
  • Have you granted other employees' religious requests?
  • Has the employee offered a possible compromise?

Asking and answering these questions can help you frame responses to accommodation requests that are fair, consistent and based on business reasons.

Issues involving religious discrimination can't be eliminated, but fair treatment and expressions of concern by employers can go a long way toward improving employee relations and minimizing the risk of claims of unfair treatment, says Raile.

Basically, a good-faith effort is a good place to start.

Rate this item

Rate this item:

Please Sign in to rate this.

Top ^
To Articles Index
To ASAE home


Community Education Resources Career Advocacy About Us Join Shop
Volunteer Groups
ASAE U Online
Associations Now
Models & Samples
Find a Job
Post a Job

Board of Directors
Standards of Conduct
Get Started
Get Connected
Get Involved
Buyers' Guide
Endorsed Business Solutions


American Society of Association Executives™ (ASAE), 1575 I St. NW, Washington, DC 20005
P. 888.950.2723, F. 202.371.8315 or P. 202.371.0940 (in Washington, DC)
© Copyright 2011 ASAE. All rights reserved.

Social Media | Advertise | ASAE Foundation | Site Map | Contact Us | Privacy Notice
Supplier Partner Corner
Find:  Resources  |  Events  |  Jobs  |  ASAE Staff  |  Endorsed Business Solutions  |  Buyer's Guide  |  Members  |  Give Back   |  Help  |  Home
linked in Twitter Feed Facebook Group Flickr Group YouTube Channel Collaborate