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Federal Jury Award Highlights Importance of Training on Religious Accommodation

Published by on November 11, 2015

On October 22, 2015, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced that a federal jury in Peoria, Illinois has awarded $240,000 to two Somalian‑American Muslims who were fired from their jobs as truck drivers when they refused to transport alcohol because it violated their religious beliefs. According to the EEOC, their administrative investigation revealed […]

On October 22, 2015, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced that a federal jury in Peoria, Illinois has awarded $240,000 to two Somalian‑American Muslims who were fired from their jobs as truck drivers when they refused to transport alcohol because it violated their religious beliefs.

According to the EEOC, their administrative investigation revealed that the employer could have readily avoided assigning the employees to that particular delivery without any undue hardship, but refused to do so.

In its press release, the EEOC specifically noted that the employer “failed to provide any discrimination training to its human resources personnel, which led to catastrophic results for these employees.”

Religious accommodation issues are tricky for managers and human resources departments to flesh out, and this case highlights the necessity of providing training specifically focused on the issue of accommodation. Many managers may not have known what to do when faced with two employees refusing to perform their assigned duties (in this case, driving an established delivery route) because it involved transporting alcohol.

Religious accommodation issues are wrought with similar tough questions. Take a look at the EEOC’s “What You Should Know” page for religious accommodation, listing some common accommodations sought. Most employers would probably be surprised to learn of many of the points and provisions noted there. As the EEOC’s announcement clearly highlights, a “reasonable accommodation” can include an alteration of the employee’s duties or tasks. Additional examples of reasonable accommodations are:

  • Flexible scheduling and voluntary shift substitutions or swaps
  • Job reassignments
  • Modifications to workplace policies or practices, including those to the employer’s dress or grooming practices.

Employees also cannot be forced to participate (or not participate) in a religious activity as a condition of employment.

The analysis for religious accommodation is very similar to an accommodation for a disability – will the accommodation cause an undue hardship? Therefore, if an employer receives a request for an accommodation, the employer should enter into the interactive process with the employee to determine the correct accommodation. Proper training for managers and human resources to help them identify requests for accommodation and begin the interactive process is essential to protect yourself from claims in this complex and evolving area of employment law.

Laconic Lookout

Employers should provide training for mangers and human resources personnel that specifically highlights the necessity of engaging in the interactive process for requests related to religious accommodation. Refer to the EEOC’s Best Practices for guidance on establishing a solid policy to educate your managers and human resources personnel on recognizing and responding to requests for religious accommodation, and the most effective responses to those requests.

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