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managing religion in the workplace

A Guide to Managing Religion in the Workplace

The Australian Constitution, the supreme law under which the nation operates, protects the free exercise of any religion in Australia. In the 2016 Census, nearly 60 per cent of Australians reported identifying as a member of a religion. Australia’s rich multiculturalism means there are a large number of faiths practiced in the country, by people from all parts of the world.

It is increasingly important for businesses to acknowledge the religious needs of employees, customers and other stakeholders in fulfilling their legal and social obligations. There are several areas where businesses need to pay particular attention to stay within the law. We list below some key considerations for managing religion in the workplace.

Dress codes

Many businesses have dress codes or uniforms prescribed for the workplace. As a general rule, employees’ religiously required dress should be allowed unless it breaches legislation, creates unsafe working conditions (for themselves or others), or is a genuine requirement for that person in that role (rather than just ‘standard practice’). For example, if an employee worked in food preparation or in a medical environment, occupational health and safety may dictate the need for all jewellery to be removed. This is a reasonable and genuine requirement within the law.

It is important for the business to have open dialogue with employees for each party to provide feedback on guidelines, and to reach mutually agreed on outcomes. When establishing dress codes, a business should also consider the requirements future employees may have in regards to accommodating religious standards.

Religious holidays

Under the Fair Work Act 2009 and state and territory anti-discrimination law, it’s unlawful to discriminate against employees due to religion. This could include, for example, scheduling meetings on a religious holiday and not relaying important changes to a staff member who did not attend because they were absent to observe the holiday.

Most businesses in Australia observe Christian holidays, such as Christmas and Easter. Depending on the circumstances and the business, it is good practice for a business to be flexible to the needs of different employees. This could mean:

  • Allowing an employee to use leave entitlements to observe a religious holiday or occasion,
  • Celebrating holidays from different religions in the workplace,
  • Having flexible work arrangements as an option, such as allowing a staff member to work different hours or days to fulfil their religious needs.

Leave for religious reasons

Outside of religious holidays, there may be other circumstances where an employee needs to take time off to observe other religious occasions. Managers and businesses should give reasonable consideration to leave requests for these circumstances. This fosters a more inclusive workplace and minimises the risk of religious discrimination claims.

Considering leave requests for religious or cultural observance does not need to be treated differently from other leave requests. Other options businesses may implement are arranging informal arrangements for ‘replacement holidays’. For example, a Jewish employee who does not celebrate Christmas may be given the option to swap the Christmas holiday for Yom Kippur. These sorts of arrangements can be negotiated with employees on a business-by-business basis.

Prayer and practices

Some religions require followers to pray several times throughout the day. Usually, these prayer breaks are short and having open conversations with employees and considering their religious needs can lead to happier, more productive businesses. Ideally, a workplace may have a ‘quiet room’ or prayer room to allow employees to pray in private and minimises the time workers are away from the job.

Preventing employees from time away from the job to prayer is not necessarily discrimination however. There may be some cases where operational requirements do not allow for this time away. For example, a hospital may require a certain number of nurses to be on a ward at a given time to maintain nurse-patient ratios. It may not be possible to give an employee time at a specific hour to allow them to leave the ward. In this case, managers and employees should discuss options that may help accommodate the needs of the individual and the business.

Ensuring you appropriately manage religion in the workplace is crucial for the happiness and well-being of your staff.

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