Holy Controversy! Teacher's Denied Leave of Absence Request Leads to Civil Rights Suit

Picture this scenario: your organization is at the peak of productivity—the busiest time of the year. You, as a manager, expect all hands to be on deck, until you receive the request for time off. How do you respond?

Most managers would probably say no. But what would you do if your employee asked for time off during crunch time because of a religious obligation?

Back in 2008, the McArthur Middle School of Berkeley, Illinois said "no" to teacher Safoorah Khan’s request for unpaid leave during finals— and now they’re facing a lawsuit.

Because Khan was requesting time off to perform Hajj, a pilgrimage required by the Muslim faith, the Justice Department alleges that the Berkeley School District violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by failing to reasonably accommodate her religious practices, forcing her to choose between her job and her religion.

Khan chose religion. She resigned to participate in the Hajj, which resulted in a lawsuit against her former employer. The Justice Department filed the suit following her complaint in December 2010. According to EEOC law, an employer must reasonably accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices unless it would be an "undue hardship on the employer's operation of its business." This includes religious leaves, dress, and grooming practices that employees have to observe for religious reasons.

This recent case is not the only alleged instance of religious discrimination in the workplace. Former airport security officer Carole Smith has also been in the news, fighting to get her job back at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Smith, who practices Wicca, claims she was fired because her coworkers feared her religious beliefs. Smith has stated to the press that she had been discriminated against and accused of placing a hex on a TSA co-worker, despite the fact that spell-casting is not a part of her pagan practices.

Avoiding Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

In order to attract a diverse pool of talent, organizations must create an environment that’s conducive to diversity and provides cultural and religious accommodation when necessary. In cases like Khan’s and Smith’s, it’s clear that managing the religious and cultural accommodations of the workforce can become a challenge if companies are not adequately prepared.

Was Khan’s truly a case of religious discrimination, or was HR just asleep at the wheel? Some feel that the incident with Khan could have been avoided with better planning and a leave policy that was clearly outlined in the company procedure handbook.

"I notice in today’s economy that the smaller the company, the less the owners feel the need to pay attention to HR and the need to have an HR manual—even if only a document that outlines basic policies," says Richard Angulo, Business Development Virtual Agent at RAA Group Inc. "This is why any business should have an employee manual, which documents policies and procedures for all employee related matters; but at least vacation, sick time, and overtime. Have all new employees sign and acknowledge acceptance of having received and reviewed the manual."

Creating a Diverse Workplace

A diverse workplace is beneficial for a number of reasons, and is an increasingly important part of a company’s strategic plan.

"Studies show that workforce diversity has a tremendous impact on ROI and on the bottom line, in terms of corporate profits," Victor Brown, Director of Workforce Development for the Birmingham Alliance in Alabama told Human Resources iQ. "Companies that are already embracing diversity and inclusion have a have a competitive advantage when a diverse company looks to do business with them."

"Companies that struggle with maintaining a diverse workplace culture also struggle with long-term revenue growth and profits. Short term solutions often come back to haunt companies," said Brown, referring to companies that cut diversity training programs in order to save money in tough economic times.

A culturally diverse pool of talent promotes a wider marketplace of original ideas that can lead to more innovation than in a homogenous workplace – but only if the channels are open for communication and not clogged by biases or reactionary attitudes.

"There are always a wide number of facts that make each situation unique where issues of workplace diversity and/or possible discrimination are concerned," said Michelle Johnson, diversity trainer and author of The Diversity Code. "When it comes to religion and religious discrimination, however, workplaces always have a fine line between taking into account the individual and specific accommodations that a person's religion requires as part of avoiding religious discrimination, while keeping in mind the larger objectives of a workplace."

In Khan’s case, this was the source of conflict.

According to Johnson, "What workplace diversity and inclusion is really about is making sure that differences, styles and viewpoints are effectively incorporated and acknowledged in ways that contribute to productivity, profitability and purpose."

There are plenty of steps that an organization can take to embrace diversity as a top priority, Johnson said, suggesting that cultural differences in the workplace should be treated with the same constant awareness as issues like safety in the workplace. However, having an "us vs. them" mentality can be counterproductive to an inclusive workplace culture. Johnson pointed out that the difference can be as small as making sure that non-smokers and smokers are allowed the same amount of breaks, or as significant as designing the weekend schedule around religious practices and restrictions.

Diversity in today’s workplace is more complicated than just black and white. HR must be vigilant about keeping in mind the accommodations required by the various religions that exist in your company. This is essential not only to avoid violating EEOC regulations, but to create an environment that encourages diversity and respects the beliefs of the talent that comprise your unique workplace culture.

Read more about managing diversity in the workplace:

Cultural Diversity in the Workplace: The Source of Unlimited Potential

Understanding Relationships in an Increasingly Diverse Workplace Culture

The Man in the Mirror: What HR Can Learn from American Idol