Should Employees be Allowed to Wear Symbols of Faith in the Workplace?

The modern American workplace thrives on diversity, and experienced employers recognize this diversity as a strength. Our differences help us overcome boundaries and teach us how to work together to achieve shared goals. But difference can lead to conflict, and employers are sometimes at an impasse when one worker’s freedom of religious expression seems to undermine productivity or infringe on the rights of another.

I’m often approached with the following question from confused employers and HR professionals: Should employees be allowed to openly express their faith in the workplace? Specifically, should they be allowed to wear faith-based clothing, images or jewelry?

workplace, symbols of faith, religious expression

Religious Expression and Symbols of Faith

According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers may not discriminate against individuals on account of their religion. This applies to hiring, firing, terms of employment, and the obligation to accommodate religious practices in the workplace as long as they don’t cause undue hardship for the employer. Accommodations may include providing a place to pray, allowing a day off occasionally for religious reasons, or allowing employees to wear religious garb.

If you would rather not accommodate an employee’s right to wear religious clothing, you will need to prove that doing so would cause undue hardship for your business. This is a two-step process. You’ll need to prove that

1) You made a good faith effort to help the employee accommodate her religious obligations, and

2) her obligations incurred an actual, significant monetary or administrative expense.

If an employee would like to take action against an employer for a Title VII violation, she’ll need to prove the following three things: 1) that she has a bona fide religious obligation to wear the symbol or clothing, 2) the employer knew about her obligations, and 3) she was subject to some adverse action, like punishment or firing, for wearing the symbol or clothing.

Legal vs. Social Obligations

Short of going to court, there are plenty of ways to peacefully resolve a workplace conflict over religious garb. If an employee is offended by another employee’s religious attire, use your diplomacy skills and meet with each of them privately to discuss the issue. Help the two sides find common ground on their own. Only if this method fails should you resort to formal disciplinary or legal action.

Class Discussion

In my HR management class at Manhattan College, this topic inspired a lively and productive debate—Possibly one of our best discussions ever!

Five of my students present argued that symbols of faith should be permitted in the workplace, since the practice is unlikely to harm and may actually increase productivity. One student argued (and I was inclined to agree) that symbols of faith should be discouraged in the workplace. Otherwise a precedent may be set that can open the door to other forms of permissive, productivity-undermining behavior.

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