Religious equality

Religious discrimination laws mean catering for different religions goes farther than the canteen, says Vicki Taylor

Case studies: Speak Out, B&Q

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Since the Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) Regulations came into force on 2 December 2003 it has been unlawful to discriminate against anyone because of their religion or beliefs.

But although the regulations prevent direct discrimination on the grounds of religion, and make it unlawful for an organisation to discriminate indirectly by operating policies which affect members of a certain religious group (where they cannot be justified), they do not state what provisions an employer should make for employees who subscribe to a particular religion or set of beliefs.

With this in mind, organisations have an opportunity to go beyond their duties to cater for the needs of staff with different religious beliefs and become recognised as an employer of choice for these groups.

Certain concessions, like allowing time off for religious festivals other than Christmas, are not set in stone under the legislation. However, failing to seriously consider an employee’s request could lead to an indirect discrimination claim.

Nicola Dandridge, head of equality at law firm Thompsons Solicitors, warns: “Unless there is a good reason that employers can’t allow individuals to take [their religious] days off as holiday it could be unlawful. Also, working late on Fridays can coincide with when Jewish people, for example, might want to take time off work. If there is a rigid adherence to work patterns that can’t be justified, it could be seen as indirectly discriminatory.”

While such provisions are not legally required, making allowances for staff can help to enhance an employer’s reputation and consequently attract and retain employees. John Nicholson, head of diversity at the Land Registry, explains: “The law doesn’t require you, for instance, to have quiet rooms or prayer rooms. What it does is encourage you to think about the need to do that. Providing a room is, in my view, going beyond the legal requirements, but it is what a good employer would do.”

The Land Registry, which has 8,500 staff across 25 offices, has also made other provisions to meet the needs of its employees from all religious backgrounds. “Not all of our offices have a canteen, but in the Leicester office [where there is one] there are meals available to cater for the needs of all staff, [for example] we make sure there is always a vegetarian option. We also have an office in Harrow which doesn’t have a canteen, but staff bring their own food and we have quite a large Jewish population, so we have provided a kosher and non-kosher fridge for staff to store their food in,” explains Nicholson.

Abdul Q Sameja, a registration executive at the Land Registry, has worked in its Leicester office since 1990. As a Muslim, Sameja says it is important to him to carry out his religious duty of praying five times a day and believes the attitude of the organisation has been a key factor in him remaining in its employment for sixteen years.

“Ever since I joined, they have been very good in giving me time to leave the work floor to go to a room, say my prayers and come back,” he explains.

He adds that he has also passed the message about the Land Registry being an accommodating employer onto other Muslims who have then applied for jobs.

Different religious groups have also organised meals to celebrate their religious festivals, which Sameja says all staff – whatever their faith – like to get involved with. He believes this has helped the 300-plus staff based in Leicester to understand one another’s religions.

“As an office, we started some years ago having a Divali meal. This year, for the first time, we had our Eid meal to mark the end of Ramadan which the Muslim members of staff organised. We also have a Christmas party each year.”

To become recognised as an employer of choice for staff from different religious backgrounds, Dandridge believes organisations should start by identifying which religions are represented in their workplace, and what policies and provisions might be beneficial to accommodate these beliefs.

“They should be discussing things with the workforce to see what is needed. There is no point in offering a prayer room if no one is going to use it. What would be appropriate for someone who wants to become an employer of choice is to enter into meaningful discussions with their staff about what is needed and then be seen to be accommodating these in a flexible and sensible way,” she says.

But as Nicholson points out, there is also a need to ensure that staff who don’t have any strongly-held religious beliefs don’t feel disadvantaged by the organisation’s policies. “We have flexible working policies available for whatever reason, whether that is used for religious purposes or not.”

Stephen Golden, head of policy and strategy for group equality and inclusion at Transport for London (TfL), agrees that all religious groups in the workplace should be involved with shaping its diversity policies. It runs a group, open to all staff, which has four official meetings each year to discuss life at TfL and the impact it has on the different religions represented in the workplace.

“All of the faiths have agreed to work together rather than saying ‘we want particular things for Christians, Jews, Sikhs or Muslims’. They want all faiths to be recognised with equal importance,” says Golden.

One employee who chairs the meetings, for example, has no particular faith, but wants to learn and support people of all religions in the organisation. TfL strives where possible to stay ahead of legislation to be known as an employer of choice.

“We adapted our uniform ahead of any guidance or policy requiring us to do so. We made sure there were different styles of uniform that people can wear. We provided bigger hats for Rastafarian members of staff so that their dreadlocks could be kept under their hat and we allow Muslim women to wear a hijab [head covering],” says Golden.

There are also four permanent prayer rooms across the network with another three or four pending. “We know that in order to get the best out of our people they must feel valued and well looked after. We know we need to keep doing that and not rest on our laurels.”

Employers can also provide access to pension schemes that take employees’ religions or beliefs into account by not investing in certain sectors and products, such as alcohol or pork. Julia Dreblow, RSI (responsible social investment) manager at Friends Provident, believes employers are becoming increasingly aware of the need to provide alternative options. And doing so won’t necessarily increase employers’ costs. “I would certainly recommend finding out whether they have got any employees with religious concerns and make sure a provision is available to match their needs. There is no downside to having the option available.”

Case study: Speak Out

Charitable body Speak Out In Hounslow changed its pension provision to enable a Muslim to join the scheme.

After bringing in an independent financial adviser (IFA) that specialised in ethical investment, the organisation, which provides advocacy services to people with learning difficulties, switched from an existing defined contribution stakeholder pension to a Norwich Union defined contribution stakeholder pension.

Becky Powell, director, explains: “We still match up to 5%, but each staff member can now decide what risk level they take and what they invest in.”

She adds that changing the pension over was straightforward. “It took a little bit of time, but was very easy with the IFA helping us through the process.”

Case study: B & Q

B&Q has 38,000 employees, many of whom practice different religions. It issues a calendar each year to staff detailing religious festivals and other related events.

Joy Ward, diversity adviser at B&Q , explains: “It helps people respect and understand the religious and cultural beliefs of each other. It is also really useful information when we are looking at staff scheduling.”

However, she adds that the nature of the organisation means staff aren’t automatically entitled to the time off. “We are a seven-day organisation with only one closed day per year. Each request [for time off] is taken on its own merit.”

Areas where employees can pray during breaks are also provided and the organisation has no issue with employees wearing headwear particular to their religion such as a turban. “You are encouraged to wear what is right for your faith,” adds Ward.