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Can an Employer Require Proof of Religion for Time-Off Requests?
If an employee requests time off for religious events, holidays, or ceremonies, can the employer require proof of religion?
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If an employee asks for time off but is denied, could he try another angle by claiming it's for a religious event? What if it really is for a religious event that he just didn't explain in his initial request? Let's take a look into this exact situation with an employee named George.
Employee Claims Time Off is for Religious Celebration
George requested time off but was denied by his manager due to scheduling demands. Shortly afterwards, George explained to his manager that he intended to be part of a religious celebration that day, and that denying him time off would be religious discrimination. His manager had never heard George talk about his religion previously and questioned its legitimacy.
Could the manager require George to show proof of religious affiliation and/or proof of the religious event in order to grant time off as an accommodation?
What is Religious Discrimination?
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), religious discrimination involves treating a person unfavorably because of their religious beliefs and is not limited to traditional, organized religions. In most situations, “the employer should ordinarily assume that an employee's request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely-held religious belief.”
What to Do When Time Off for Religious Accommodation is Questionable
In requests for religious accommodations, the EEOC recognizes there may be times when employers question their legitimacy:
“Factors that – either alone or in combination – might undermine an employee’s assertion that he sincerely holds the religious belief at issue include: whether the employee has behaved in a manner markedly inconsistent with the professed belief; whether the accommodation sought is a particularly desirable benefit that is likely to be sought for secular reasons; whether the timing of the request renders it suspect (e.g., it follows an earlier request by the employee for the same benefit for secular reasons); and whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.”
In George’s situation, it would be appropriate for the manager to request additional supporting information to determine what kind of accommodation can be made. This may include an explanation of the religion and beliefs, as well as details about the religious celebration (such as time and duration).
How to Accommodate a Religious Belief
If the manager finds George’s religious beliefs and the religious celebration to be legitimate, an attempt to reasonably accommodate George should be made. This may include requesting voluntary shift substitutions or swaps, or perhaps scheduling George to work before or after the celebration. Per the EEOC:
“If the employer does not grant the employee’s preferred accommodation but instead provides an alternative accommodation, the employee must cooperate by attempting to meet his religious needs through the employer’s proposed accommodation if possible.”
In the event there is no reasonable accommodation that can be made without creating an undue hardship to the company, the employer does not have to accommodate George; however, the company should be prepared with objective information to prove the undue hardship. This is determined on a case-by-case analysis by looking at the “de minimis” cost.
What is an Undue Hardship for Religious Accommodation?
While this is on a case-by-case analysis, the EEOC explains an undue hardship to accommodate an employee for a religious need with the following:
“Costs to be considered include not only direct monetary costs but also the burden on the conduct of the employer’s business. For example, courts have found undue hardship where the accommodation diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees’ job rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, or causes co-workers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.”
Be sure to document everything, from the original request to exploring accommodations and their potential hardship to the company. Whether or not a religious belief is “sincerely held” by an employee is only important in cases of accommodation and not relevant for how an employee is treated. Title VII requires all employees to be free from harassment and disparate treatment in all situations.
For additional information, please contact your certified HR expert. Not a current Stratus HR client? Request a free consultation and our team will contact you shortly.