Case Study: Accommodating Religion In The Workplace

How do you handle the gray areas of accommodating religious diversity at work?

Accommodating, incorporating, and embracing diversity in the workplace has been a common thread among many of our articles recently. Each piece asks and answers different questions about diversity, including “How do you uphold the rights and preferences of individual employees?” and “How do you tap into the benefits of diversity while avoiding the possible challenges?”

In a timely example of accommodating a religion-based need in a communal situation, I had to address this struggle in a club I help lead, outside of the workplace, but within a similar situation to what many experience on the job. Since many of the factors in this situation parallel things one might see at work, we used many of the basic employment laws to help shape our thinking around this issue. Here’s our story.

The Background

Our club is one that requires physical contact between members. Similar to activities such as partner yoga, wrestling, flying trapeze, or ballroom dancing, you simply can’t participate in the club if you are unwilling to be in contact with the other participants. Our club is coed, but unlike ballroom dancing, there is no historic, traditional, or expected gender distinction for who someone might be paired up with during the course of the activity.

Our club, although open to the public, is also offered as a course for credit at a local university. So at any given time, some of the students in this club may be receiving school credit for attending, while others aren’t.

The Situation

Recently one of our new students requested that he not be partnered with female students due to religious restrictions. And he asked that the leader working with his group at the time share this request with the other club leaders. This poses a challenge for the rest of the club members for a few reasons.

  1. Attendance varies from meeting to meeting and it is impossible to guarantee that there will always be a male in attendance to work with this participant.
  2. As members progress in skill level, the numbers of available participants decrease, thus by continuing to participate in the club, accommodating this request will become harder.
  3. As members progress in skill level, they are expected to teach newer students. Teaching generally includes a certain level of physical contact for demonstration purposes. It would be difficult to meet the needs of our students when an instructor cannot adequately teach a portion of them.

The Factors Considered

Although our organization is run as a club and not a business, this situation could arise in many workplaces, especially those requiring a physical element to participate. As a leadership team, we discussed this situation holistically as well as the specific request. The factors considered can be broken down into three general categories: rules, laws and precedent; impact to the club; and impact to the student.

Rules, laws, and precedent

To help us think through this situation, we looked at several employment rules and principles that often guide decisions in the workplace.

  1. Would accommodating this student pose an unreasonable hardship to the club?
  2. Would this student be able to execute tasks needed to complete the course for full credit with reasonable accommodation?
  3. Does the affiliated university have any specific rules or precedent that would apply in this situation?

Impact to the club

While it may be a little bit inconvenient to accommodate this student, it is really not any more inconvenient than accommodating a student with an injury, which we already do frequently. If the student owns the responsibility to remind others of the situation as needed and sit out during activities where his needs can’t be accommodated (auditing portions of the class instead of participating when a male partner isn’t available for example), then class disruption should be minimal.

On the other hand, inviting this student to stay with the club beyond the first quarter would pose a hardship since he wouldn’t be able to contribute fully as a more senior club member.

Impact to the student

The student in question is enrolled in our club for school credit, and it is too late for him to drop the class this quarter. Thus by leaving now he would receive a failing or incomplete grade for this particular class.

The Decision

After analyzing several options, our team decided to allow the student to finish the quarter as a club participant. We communicated that he would own the responsibility to communicate his situation and sit out of activities as needed. We agreed that observing the class instead of participating during these times would not impact his attendance or his grade. And we let him know that in order to progress in the club beyond the first quarter, he would need to interact with female students.

As you seek talent to fill your jobs, you may come across similar situations where, due to religion, a candidate can’t fully participate in all aspects of the job the way it has been previously done. Although employment laws offer some flexibility to companies to hire candidates who are able and willing to complete the work, by thinking through all of the possible options, you can often find a solution that is fair and respectful to the employee, the workplace, and the company.