Editorial: Compromise is key with religion at work

  • Updated: June 18, 2008 - 6:57 PM

Employers, workers need to communicate to avoid conflict.

When it comes to religion, how far should an employer go to accommodate its employees? And how much should workers be willing to bend to comply with workplace rules?

A recent Star Tribune story about tensions between some Somali Muslims and their bosses highlighted the issue. Conflicts, complaints and legal action over on-the-job religious discrimination are rising, especially among local Somali immigrants.

Yet there are good ways to reverse that trend. Employers and employees can find common ground that respects religious views and gets the work done. When a spirit of cooperation exists, workplace adjustments that don't interfere with business can be made.

The story described how several Somali Muslim women were recently indefinitely suspended from a New Brighton tortilla factory for refusing to wear a new company uniform -- pants and a shirt. They argued that their faith prohibited such dress; the company claimed that their flowing garments posed a safety hazard. The women filed a discrimination complaint. And this wasn't the first incident.

In recent years, Somali Muslims have had conflicts with several other Minnesota manufacturing firms over dress, prayer breaks, and issues such as handling pork at checkout counters and transporting alcohol in taxis. Lawsuits or formal federal complaints are pending in a few cases.

At the same time, many companies have found smart ways to compromise. Target, for example, requires employees to wear red and tan as a uniform, but allows Muslim women to wear a scarf and long skirt in those colors. And the Marsden Building maintenance company, which employs about 300 East African immigrants, melds prayer breaks into work schedules.

Federal law supports the Target and Marsden approaches. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 says employers cannot discriminate based on religion and that they must "reasonably accommodate'' employees on matters of faith. The same law, however, says that if an accommodation imposes an "undue hardship'' in a workplace -- such as higher costs, lower efficiency or safety issues -- an employer does not have to make adjustments.

Those protections are in place for good reason. At the same time, there's flexibility to handle various scenarios. Certain garments can be worn but arranged to make them safe in a factory environment. Breaks for prayer can be treated like other allowable breaks for the restroom, lunch, coffee or smoking. And just as employees expect reasonable accommodations, they should understand that some job requirements are nonnegotiable. With that information in mind, they have to be smart in choosing an employer.

Communication and compromise. When those things are done well, companies and workers can relieve tension in the workplace and avoid religious discrimination complaints.

  • FAST FACTS

    • Nationally, filings for religious discrimination against Muslims at work rose from 398 in 1997 to a high of 1,155 in 2002. In 2007, the figure was 909. Top issues were termination, harassment, employment conditions and failure to provide accommodations.

    • In Minnesota, Muslims filed 45 religious discrimination cases, up from just eight in 2004.

    Source: U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

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