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Religion, Belief and HR

By Neil Payne, Commisceo Global

UK legislation relating to discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief came into force on December 2nd 2003. The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 make such discrimination unlawful. It is crucial for UK based HR personnel to understand the implications and impact this has on the field of HR.

This article aims to assist HR personnel in understanding the legislation and how practical issues stemming from religion and belief affect the workplace and HR professionals.


Although there exists no universal agreement on what constitutes religion or 'a' religion there are some common threads that run through the differing opinions. There are three essential elements that are necessary to meet the definition of 'religion', 1) a belief in a supreme being, 2) worship of that supreme being and 3) a group or following of people who observe a set of beliefs, values, customs and practices set down by and through the supreme being. Grey areas exist and arguments will continue as to the definition of religion but in the end it is the responsibility of the courts to decide on the matter when discrimination charges are brought forward relating to HR or other matters.


Defining belief is even more complex. The guidelines state that philosophical or political beliefs are not covered by the legislation unless they are similar to a religious belief. Could this then theoretically incorporate atheism? What of Veganism, Pacifism or Druidism? Again there exists more doubt than certainty with regard to a definition and again it is the jurisdiction of the courts to decide, not HR personnel and the like.


Discrimination on religious grounds can take place in four different ways:

Direct Discrimination is where a person(s) is treated less favourably or not equally to others due to their religious adherence.

For example, at interview stage Jameel is just as qualified or perhaps even more qualified that the other interviewees. Jameel makes it clear he is a Muslim, prays five times a day, attends the Friday prayers and fasts in Ramadan. The HR manager does not offer him the position out of fear that his religious commitments would impede upon his performance. This is direct discrimination.

Indirect Discrimination is where a generic rule is enforced that negatively impacts or puts at a disadvantage adherents of a certain religion.

For example, a firm introduces a rule stating that men may not have long hair. Livtar, a Sikh, with a 'shika' (small knotted bunch of hair) would thus be indirectly discriminated against.

Victimisation occurs where a person is discriminated against due to their involvement in an act or willingness to do so.

For example, after giving evidence on behalf of a colleague in an employment tribunal, Mina applies for a promotion. Although she has the skills and qualifications the HR manager sees her as disloyal due to her actions at the tribunal and refuses the promotion.

Harassment takes place when a person is ill-treated, intimidated, degraded, humiliated or offended because of their religious affiliation.

For example, Yadid is tormented and ridiculed in the workplace through comments and practical jokes for being Jewish and wearing a skull cap.

It is the responsibility of HR professionals to fully understand the implications of the legislation on HR procedures and practices as well as the consequences poor cultural awareness among staff can have on colleagues from religious communities.

Religion in the UK Workplace

In response to the legislation mentioned above and the desire to create better cohesion among staff, employers and HR personnel need to understand the religious make-up of their staff, gain insight into the religious doctrine and appreciate the requirements of each religion. This will then equip them to analyse their HR policies and practices which may discriminate against or negatively impact their employees.

It would be fair to say that many of the problems faced in the workplace around the issue of religion stem from a lack of knowledge and information about what other faiths do and believe. In today's multicultural UK it is important to be aware of and appreciate the differences between Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Rastafarians, Bahais and others. It is imperative that this process starts at the top, i.e. HR personnel and managers, and works its way down.

By way of introducing areas pertaining to religion which HR personnel and employers need to gain an understanding of, the following four examples will be considered:

Religious Dress

Many religions carry dress codes or guidelines on appearance and presentation.

Khalsa Sikhs wear five religious symbols known as the five K's. Two are not visible, but the 'Kara' (a steel bangle worn on the wrist) and the 'Kesh' (uncut hair usually underneath a turban) are worn on the outside. The 'Kirpan' (a decorative sword) does not necessarily have to be visible.

Muslim women are required to cover their bodies as a sign of modesty. Interpretations of the Quran differ so you may see Muslim women wearing just a head covering whereas others may only show their eyes. Muslim men on the whole do not have specific restrictions on their dress although they are strongly encouraged to wear a beard. Again, interpretations as to what constitutes a beard vary.

Hindus wear the 'Tilaka' which is a mark on the forehead. The colour varies according to which sect is followed.

Rastafarians wear their hair in dreadlocks which represent the Lion of Judah.

Jews wear a 'Kippah' (skull cap) out of respect for God.

HR personnel may want to consider how such examples may impact health and safety regulations, dress codes or staff uniforms.

Religious Observance

Many religions have requirements of their followers in terms of practices.

Muslims must pray five times a day. This is done facing Mecca in Saudi Arabia and performing a series of recitations in tandem with bowing and prostration. Prayer times vary according to the time of the year as they are calculated on the movements of the sun. Muslim men must also attend the Friday prayer at a mosque.

Sabbath, the Jewish holy day, starts at sunset on Friday and continues till sunset on Saturday. During this period practising Jews will do nothing that may be seen as work.

Following a cremation in the Hindu religion, relatives of the deceased observe a 13 day period of mourning at home. Male relatives may be required to carry the ashes to the Ganges, India.

HR personnel may see these examples impact on working hours, lunch/break times, working time flexibility, facilities and bereavement policies.

Religious Holidays

HR staff should always be aware of the religious leave requirements of their staff.

Muslims may require leave for Eid ul-Fitr at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan or at Eid ul-Adha at the end of the Hajj (pilgrimage). Shia Muslims may request leave for Ashura, a day of mourning for a martyred Muslim leader.

Hindus and Sikhs have many holy days and festivals, most notably Diwali.

Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) are two significant Jewish holy days.

Most HR personnel will have a strong understanding of the company leave policy but it is best to be aware of situations that may require understanding and flexibility.

Social Interaction

Religious observance can introduce a few problems in relation to social interaction.

Food and Drink:

Muslims and Sikhs can not and do not drink alcohol.

Jews and Muslims do not eat pork. Meat must be Kosher for Jews and Halal for Muslims, both referring to the method by which the animal is slaughtered. Muslims in the absence of Halal meat can eat Kosher.

Hindus do not eat beef as the cow is held sacred due to the fact it is held dear by Lord Krishna. In addition many Hindus do not eat meat.

Male - Female Interaction:

Although not so commonly practised by the younger generation of British Muslims, rules suggest women and men should not openly mix. This is especially true when two members of the opposite sex are left alone. For example, Muslim men and women may feel very uncomfortable working alone with a colleague of the opposite sex.

The caste system:

One feature of Indian/Hindu society that can sometimes manifest in the British workplace is the caste system. This system ranks society according to occupation. The four main categories are Brahimis (priests), Kshatriyas (warrior/ruling class), Vaishyas (merchants/artisans) and Shudras (labourers/servants). There are also the outcasts or 'untouchables' who are considered too lowly for inclusion. There are examples in the UK whereby members of one class refused to work under the supervision of a member of an inferior class.

HR personnel will need to consider all the above examples when considering catering arrangements, team building and social functions such a Christmas parties.

Above we have presented only a few examples of how religion and religious observance can impact the HR department of a company. It is key that HR personnel, especially those with a highly diverse workforce, take positive and progressive steps to ensure the requirements of religious staff are considered and accommodated where possible.

Conclusions for HR personnel

Creating awareness and understanding of the different religions in the workplace is essential in combating discrimination and harassment. This can be done through receiving advice and training from cross cultural consultancies. Such consultancies not only educate staff on different religions but can analyse current HR practices and procedures ensuring they do not cause problems for staff. In addition they advise on ways of overcoming challenges introduced through religion in the workplace such as in team building and maximising staff retention.

Key areas HR staff should seek to bear in mind when analysing religion and HR issues in the workplace are:

Creating Awareness - much discrimination or ridicule of religions stems from a lack of knowledge and understanding. Creating awareness will help demystify religious practices and eliminate uneducated stereotyping. Awareness of religions and religious belief can be accomplished in many ways, whether via training courses, workshops or company handouts.

Compromising - companies and HR personnel must embrace multiculturalism and diversity. In order to achieve staff cohesion it is important to understand religious concerns and be willing to compromise in order to reach agreements that leave both parties happy. If a worker's religious commitments clash with an employer's rules or timetable there is usually room for dialogue and accommodation.

Having boundaries - although it is important to see to employees religious requirements and accommodate them it is also equally important that HR personnel and employers bear in mind that the company must come first. HR departments and employers must have firm boundaries as to what is acceptable from their perspective and what is potentially damaging to the business. The law does allow some room for companies to insist on certain procedures and criteria to be enforced where no reasonable alternatives exist, even if it does discriminate in one form or another against a religion(s).

For more information on the subject of religion, HR and discrimination, ACAS have published a useful guide, 'Religion or Belief and the Workplace'.

For more information on how Commisceo Global can help you with your training or education needs in relation to cross cultural and religious differences please visit Commisceo Global a London based cross cultural communications consultancy providing cultural awareness training.

Commisceo Global.

See also T&G claims first religious discrimination victory


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