What does the law say?
The Equality Act 2010 says treating employees less favourably because of religion or belief is quite simply unlawful. The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of any religion, religious or philosophical belief and also because of a lack of religion or belief too.
Provided a belief is genuinely held, conforms to certain limits and satisfies specific conditions, including achieving certain levels of seriousness and importance, it can qualify as protected by the act.
This may sound straightforward and comprehensive, but when the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) carried out the largest ever public consultation on the law surrounding religious discrimination at work earlier this year, it found “widespread confusion and misunderstanding.”
In reality, the restrictions are not quite as rigid as you may think. Numerous urban myths have developed in the workplace, leading to misinterpretation of the law by both employers and employees.
First, there is no blanket requirement for employees to be allowed days off for worship. The Court of Appeal has stated that an employee’s belief that Sunday should be a day of rest and religious observance, involving no paid employment, while deeply held, was “not a core component of the Christian faith.”
Nor does the law force employers to provide time off for prayer or religious practices, or amend someone’s working hours so they can pray at particular times. Even though a refusal without good reason could constitute indirect religious discrimination, employers who can show turning down the request was proportionate to achieve a legitimate objective will have the defence of justification available to them.
Recent advice, put forward by the Professor of Faith and Public Policy at Goldsmiths University of London, stipulates that employees should be careful of the kinds of foods prepared in communal kitchens in case it upsets colleagues of certain faiths.
He suggested not microwaving sausage rolls in a shared kitchen space. He also advised that employees should not keep bacon, or bacon rolls, in the fridge if it is shared with people whose beliefs prohibit them from eating pork. The guidelines go on to suggest that employers should serve certified halal and kosher food at corporate events, and consider whether or not alcohol should be served.