How to Prevent Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

  • Discrimination
How to Prevent Religious Discrimination in the Workplace
Olivia Cicchini

Olivia Cicchini, Employment Law Expert

(Last updated )

As an employer, it is your responsibility to promote a workplace environment that upholds inclusivity and treats all employees with equality and fairness, irrespective of factors like age, religion, gender identity, and others. Despite sincere efforts, discriminatory incidents are still prevalent in several workplaces across Canada, with religious discrimination being a commonly occurring form.

To prevent any form of religious discrimination in your workplace, it is crucial to establish policies, procedures, and practices that ensure the comfort and safety of all employees. In this guide, we will delve into the concept of religious discrimination, its various manifestations, and practical steps that you can take to prevent it from happening in your workplace.

What is Discrimination Against Religion?

Religious discrimination is a form of discrimination that occurs when an employee is subjected to unfavourable treatment due to their religious beliefs. It is a violation of human rights laws that protect individuals from discrimination based on their religion. These laws do not only apply to individuals who belong to organized religions such as Islam or Catholicism but also to those who have sincerely held religious, ethical, or moral beliefs.

In the workplace, religious discrimination can occur at any point in the employment relationship. It is not limited to hiring or termination, but can also take place during the advertising, pay, job assignments and tasks, promotions, training, temporary layoffs, benefits, and termination. Employers must take proactive measures to prevent religious discrimination in their workplaces and provide a safe and inclusive work environment for all employees. Here are some examples of when religious discrimination can occur in the workplace:

  • Advertising
  • Pay
  • Job and task assignments
  • Promotions and growth opportunities
  • Temporary layoffs
  • Internal or external training
  • Health, dental, and other benefits
  • Firing

How is Religion Defined?

Religion is a complex and multifaceted concept that can be defined in many ways. According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, religion includes a set of practices, beliefs, and observances that are associated with a particular faith or religion. These may include things like attending religious services, praying, observing religious holidays, following dietary restrictions, and participating in religious ceremonies. Religion is often deeply ingrained in a person’s identity and can provide a sense of community, purpose, and meaning.

However, it’s important to note that religion does not include personal moral, ethical, or political views. While these beliefs may be closely tied to a person’s religious identity, they are not necessarily a part of their religion itself. For example, a person may hold progressive political views but still identify as a conservative Christian. Discrimination based on personal views or opinions is not covered under human rights legislation, but discrimination based on religious beliefs is.

In Canada, employees are protected against religious discrimination by applicable human rights legislation. Each province has established its own human rights legislation, which outlines the protected grounds for discrimination and sets out procedures for filing complaints and seeking redress. For example, human rights protections for provincially regulated employees in Ontario are provided under the Ontario Human Rights Code, while the Human Rights Code of British Columbia, the Alberta Human Rights Act, the Human Rights Code of Manitoba, and the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code provide similar protections in their respective provinces.

The Canadian Human Rights Act provides human rights protection from discrimination if you are a federally regulated workplace. Federally regulated workplaces include transport companies, such as railways, as well as television and broadcasting companies.

Regardless of jurisdiction, human rights legislation in Canada states a number of different protected grounds that cannot be infringed upon in employment. These include age, sex, race, disability, and religion/creed. Religion/creed is included in all human rights legislation, making it illegal for employers to discriminate against or harass an employee due to their religious beliefs. This means that employers cannot refuse to hire someone because of their religion, force an employee to participate in religious activities or treat an employee unfairly because of their religious beliefs.

In addition to the legal protections against religious discrimination, many employers have policies in place to promote diversity, inclusion, and religious accommodation in the workplace. These policies may include things like flexible work schedules to accommodate religious holidays, allowing employees to wear religious clothing or symbols, and providing prayer or meditation rooms for employees to use. These policies can help to create a welcoming and supportive workplace environment for employees of all faiths.

What are Examples of Religious Discrimination?

Workplace religious discrimination and harassment can be perpetrated by anyone, including an employee’s manager or supervisor, coworkers, and clients or customers. Some common religious discrimination examples include:

  • Not providing time off for employees to engage in religious holidays, leaves, ritual prayers, and Sabbath observances.
  • Penalizing or denying benefits or opportunities to an employee because of their religion.
  • Choosing not to hire or promote an individual due to their religion.
  • Relocating an employee to a different workstation or position due to their religion (for example, moving an employee with a hijab to a non-client-facing role).
  • Enforcing workplace dress codes that do not account for religious exemptions.

Religious discrimination can occur in the above ways and can also include harassment. Under human rights and health and safety laws, employers have a duty to uphold a safe and healthy work environment, free from religious discrimination and harassment.

Harassment based on religious beliefs can take many forms, including:

  • Making offensive remarks about an individual’s religious beliefs, practices, or garb.
  • Posting or sending images that depict certain religions in a negative or offensive way.
  • Spreading rumours or gossiping about someone’s religious beliefs;
  • Engaging in jokes or comments that reinforce religious stereotypes; and,
  • Attempting to convert someone to a different religion or imposing different religious beliefs on someone.

What are the Types of Religious Discrimination?

Direct discrimination

Religious discrimination can take many forms, but there are two main types: direct and indirect. Direct religious discrimination is the more overt form of discrimination and is often easier to identify. It occurs when an employer makes a decision that significantly affects an employee based on their actual or perceived religious beliefs. For example, an employer might choose not to hire someone because of their religious affiliation or practices. This type of discrimination can have a direct impact on the individual, and is therefore considered to be a serious breach of human rights.

Indirect discrimination

On the other hand, indirect religious discrimination is a more covert form of discrimination that can go unnoticed by others in the workplace. This type of discrimination occurs when an employer enforces policies or practices that appear to be neutral at face value, but have a disproportionate impact on employees of certain religions. For example, a uniform or dress code policy that requires employees to wear hats may seem reasonable, but it could be discriminatory if it prevents employees from wearing religious headwear such as a hijab, turban, or yarmulke.

Employers have a responsibility to prevent both direct and indirect religious discrimination in the workplace. One way to do this is by implementing a “blind” process for reviewing job applicants. This means that personal characteristics such as names, addresses, and other identifying information are redacted from resumes and applications to avoid any potential bias in the hiring process. Employers should also make sure that any uniform or dress code policies are flexible enough to accommodate religious garb, and should be prepared to make exceptions or accommodations for employees who cannot comply with these policies due to their religious beliefs.

How does Religious Discrimination Affect Someone?

The impact of religious discrimination in the workplace can be significant not only on the individual affected but also on the overall health of the workplace. When an individual experiences religious discrimination, they may feel a range of negative emotions such as depression, anxiety, and anger towards their employer, leading to decreased productivity and interest in their job. This can create a toxic work environment and cause low staff morale and production rates.

Furthermore, if religious discrimination goes unchecked, it can also lead to loss of clients, reduced employee retention, and increased workplace conflict. Negative experiences can also spread via word of mouth, resulting in damage to a company’s brand and reputation.

What is a Religious Accommodation Letter?

To prevent religious discrimination, employers should take steps to accommodate religious beliefs and practices. When issuing a religious exemption, it is important to provide the employee with a religious accommodation letter and keep a copy on file to ensure proof of the request being granted. This not only shows that the employer is willing to accommodate religious beliefs but also helps prevent future discrimination claims.

How Can Employers Prevent Religious Discrimination?

As an employer, it is your duty to provide a workplace that is safe, healthy, and free from any form of religious discrimination towards your employees. Failure to do so may result in legal repercussions and liability on your part. To prevent any potential human rights violations in the workplace, employers should implement the following strategies:

Develop a Workplace Violence and Harassment Policy

The policy should outline the employer’s commitment to providing a healthy, equal, and inclusive workplace.

  • List the prohibited grounds of discrimination as per the human rights legislation.
  • Define key terms such as “harassment” and “discrimination.”
  • Provide examples of unacceptable behaviour.
  • Describe how internal complaints will be handled.
  • Explain the disciplinary measures that will be applied if a complaint of harassment or discrimination is proven.
  • State the remedies that will be available if the complaint of harassment or discrimination is proven.
  • Promote the Workplace Violence and Harassment Policy:
  • All employees should be made aware of the policy.
  • Provide training to all new employees.
  • Post information about the policy on bulletin boards around the workplace.
  • Keep remote workers up to date with any changes made to policies.
  • Continuously educate employees on human rights matters to promote an inclusive work environment.

Have a Plan to Handle Complaints

Ensure that you have a plan in place to handle complaints from employees who report experiencing religious discrimination. This plan should include a clear process for investigating complaints and any necessary disciplinary measures to be taken. It is important to follow through with this plan to effectively address any incidents of discrimination in the workplace.

In addition, it is crucial to inform the employee who reported the incident about the investigation and ensure that their privacy is maintained throughout the process. Confidentiality is important in these situations to protect the employee and prevent any retaliation from occurring.

Do you need advice on how to address religious discrimination?

Establishing, maintaining, and enforcing policies that promote a healthy and inclusive workplace, free from discrimination and harassment is crucial for employers. Failure to address or ignore situations of discrimination based on religious beliefs can result in a human rights claim being filed against you, potentially leading to costly legal fees and payouts.

If you need assistance with addressing religious discrimination in the workplace or guidance on implementing an anti-discrimination policy, Peninsula’s services allow you to receive quality advice on any employment issues you may have. Contact us at 1 (833) 247-3652 to speak with one of our experts today.

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