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Family Workplaces And Religion: Steps For Avoiding Charges Of Discrimination

A jury recently awarded $3.2 million to a man against his former California university medical center employer. The plaintiff alleged he was terminated because he is a Muslim.

The plaintiff had worked in the warehouse for the employer for 20 years. He alleges he did not have any problems at work for the first 14 years; however, he alleged that his supervisors started treating him differently and with hostility when he converted to Islam in 2012. That same year, he also broke his thumb at work and had to modify his duties because of his disability. 

The plaintiff alleges his supervisors and coworkers harassed him and discriminated against him because of both his religion and his disability for the last six years of his employment. He alleges that the hospital eventually terminated him for being Muslim.

The hospital, on the other hand, unsuccessfully argued it terminated him because of his "reported threatening conduct". Megan Knowles "Fired California hospital employee awarded $3.2M in discrimination suit" (Nov. 13, 2018).

Commentary and Checklist

Religious harassment, which can include offensive remarks about a person's religious beliefs or practices, is illegal. To avoid this risk, family employers should address any inappropriate comments immediately. This prevents such comments from being repeated and from escalating and creating a hostile or offensive work environment.

The risk of religious harassment may be greater if members of your staff practice non-traditional beliefs. Staff members are protected from harassment based on any "sincerely held religious, ethical, or moral beliefs," whether mainstream like the many versions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hindu, Sikhism, or atheism or whether a lesser-known religion.

During the interview process, never ask applicants about their religion. It is best practice to avoid any conversations with staff that involve religion and to train your managers to do the same.

Train managers and staff to never make stereotypical or negative comments about any religion, and make sure to avoid criticizing a religion yourself. Even if none of your staff members practice the religion being maligned or criticized, they may associate with people who do.

Here are some additional tips for family employers to help prevent charges of religious discrimination:

  • Do not treat staff or applicants more or less favorably because of their religious beliefs or practices, except when a religious accommodation is warranted.
  • Staff cannot be forced to participate, or not participate, in a religious activity as a condition of employment.
  • Create a policy prohibiting discrimination or harassment based on religion, and train managers and staff annually on your policy.
  • Implement an effective procedure for reporting and investigating religious harassment or discrimination.
  • Permit staff to engage in religious expression, unless the religious expression would create undue hardship.
  • If staff requests religious accommodation and you feel it may case hardship, consult an attorney to determine to what extent accommodation is required.
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