Religious Accomodation

Q: I have a new hygienist who has advised me that she is a Muslim and has requested that I provide her time twice a day to pray. She has also started wearing a head scarf. These requests did not come up in the interview. I am not crazy about the headscarf and I don’t see why I should have to adjust her schedule to let her pray. Can I require her to stop wearing the head scarf; I think it makes my patients uncomfortable? Do I have to allow her time to pray, we run a tight schedule and I don’t think it is fair to allow her this time when I do not allow others?

A: I am going to respond from both a compliance perspective and an H.R. perspective. To begin with, the compliance perspective, religion is a protected classification. Therefore, employers have a duty to accommodate religion unless the accommodation is a hardship to the organization. Unlike the accommodation for a disability, the hardship impact to the employer is at a relatively low threshold. This threshold is the financial impact the accommodation may have on the practice and/or the impact the accommodation would have on co-workers resulting in potential discontent.

So let’s exam your situation, if you deny her request and she takes formal action you need to be able to show that the accommodation requested caused a financial hardship and/or employee discontent. One defense will be that the time taken for prayer is losing you money. Another defense of the denial is that the co-workers did not receive these breaks from work and this caused discontent among your staff. Now we should exam if these defenses will or will not hold water. My question to you is; do you allow employees to take any other kind of break during the work day such as smoking breaks or even snack breaks? If so, you would have difficulty with the time away is costing you argument. If you did not give breaks, then you may have to show how the prayer breaks actually cost you money, do the numbers. If the cost was insignificant, which I feel it will be, then you may not have a defense.

As far as the head scarf is concerned, it is a religious symbol and you are required to accommodate unless it interferes with the employee’s ability to do the job, especially if safety issue. Again, I would think it would be difficult for you to defend the perspective that as a hygienist that it affects her ability to do her job or that it is a safety issue since there are really no machines in a dental office that it can get caught on and cause her harm. It could actually be argued that the head scarf provided a more hygiene work environment, keeping her hair covered.

Now from the Human Resource perspective, maybe she should have advised you in the interview of her religious accommodation request. Yet, she is not mandated to advise you of her religious affiliation and accommodation request during the interview. Why, because the law is designed to protect employees not employers. My question is: If she did bring it up in the interview, would it have made a difference in your decision? When you hired her you felt she was the most qualified candidate. Let her do her job, provide her these reasonable accommodations and treat her as you would any other employee. Set the same expectations for performance and productivity. I am confident she will be able to meet these productivity standards, despite her time away from the chair. I am also confident that your patents will get used to seeing her with her head scarf.

The world is changing and we have a much more diverse applicant pool. Employers must be willing to make a reasonable accommodation for religion in order to assure that you have the best employees.