How To Advocate For Your Religious Freedom At Work
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How To Advocate For Your Religious Freedom At Work

We know that workplaces thrive (and companies benefit) when they’re diverse. And that diversity can take many different forms, including religious and faith-based diversity. Ensuring, however, that allemployees are welcome in the workplace can sometimes mean a company has to make accommodations. Think: Time off for religious holidays, for example.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars workplace discrimination based on religion, national origin, race, color, or sex. Whatever faith you might practice in the US, this means you should be free from concerns about how your religion might impact your ability to secure and retain work. Per Title VII, employers are also required to make reasonable accommodations for an employee or prospective employee’s religious practices, unless doing so would create an undue hardship for the employer.

But, making sure a company is welcoming toward all religious observers sometimes requires employees to advocate on their own behalf. That is, to get a company to implement policies and accommodate religious practices, employees sometimes might need to begin the conversation themselves.

To better understand how employees can advocate for more inclusive company policies, we reached out to the folks at SHIFT, a consulting company specializing in sexual harassment prevention and diversity and inclusion. Two of the company’s founders, Natalie Bui and Veline Mojarro of SHIFT, broke down the key steps employees can take to advocate for and check that their company has inclusive religious policies.

For starters, here are some examples of good policies and practices

“A company might have inter-faith prayer rooms. Scheduling around the holidays would also be flexible so employees are able to take time off. The language around specific company breaks and holidays would also be inclusive,” Mojarro said. “Instead of calling breaks within the work year something like ‘Christmas,’ it’s a ‘holiday break’ or a ‘winter break.’” Companies would also have policies that allow individuals to wear any religious clothing they choose. Think: wearing a hijab, turban, or yamaka and that being a non-issue in the workspace, Mojarro added.

When companies make the availability of these potential accommodations readily known, that can relieve any anxiousness employees might have about asking for an accommodation, Bui said. And, knowing what’s available provides a starting point for the conversation.

“When an employer provides those types of alternatives or those types of options, it gives [employees] more of the confidence to go and say, ‘Yeah. This is something that I can work with for my job and my religion at the same time.’”

On the other hand, if a company says that everyone at work is “a family,” that’s usually code for “That’s just the way it is around here—we’re family so we put up with it.” Be wary of such conversations, Bui and Mojarro said, since they may indicate that a company will draw out implementing practices around diversity and inclusion.

Remember, though, that you’re entitled to a reasonable accommodation

Employers are legally required to make reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs and practices. “Knowing your rights will make your conversation easier,” Mojarro said. “But it’s also looking into that company’s handbook and their HR rules and then also doing some digging around what those undue costs and burdens might look like.”

Once you’re armed with this knowledge, make a list of what your “asks” would be for accommodations. Is it time for prayer each day? A slight change in clothing policy? In that way, employees can have a list ready and available when an employer says, “Yes, of course we accommodate folks and their religious freedom.”

When making your ask, always approach it in good faith

Bui and Mojarro said it’s helpful to begin conversations with supervisors or managers in good faith. To get the conversation going, acknowledge that the company likely has good intentions. An opener like, “I know that you company want to create a diverse and included place, so I’m curious about what practices or what examples have you done to accommodate people of different religious backgrounds?” can allow for open communication. You can try the same tactic when asking about general policies to get a sense of what’s available and doable.

And, always keep a written record of your asks

Approaching the subject of religion and workplace accommodations can be uncomfortable for many folks, Bui said. That’s why she and Mojarro suggest following up via email after conversations. You’ll have the added benefit of being able to clearly restate your ask. And, should your ask go ignored or be continually postponed, you’ll have documentation.

(See SHIFT’s email template for requesting religious accommodation here.)

Loop in people who can make your ask happen

Sometimes companies lag on conversations regarding religious accommodations because they’re short-staffed or their HR department is still, “in the works.”

“In my past experiences, it’s never meant that the companies had bad intentions, sometimes it was cases they didn’t legitimately get around to it because they did not have the proper staff.” In such instances, Bui and Mojarro suggest looping in other people who are key to the conversation. Find others in the company who are going through a similar experience and follow up in writing. “When HR isn’t on the front lines of a company, know who’s got your back and start talking to folks who are coming into similar situations as you. Be consistent and persistent.”

Remember, these are your rights

If everything else has been tried, it’s worth reminding your employer that you’re legally protected. “Saying something like, ‘Actually, these are my rights as an employee of your company to have these accommodations, so I need you to make these accommodations for me,’ can go a long way,” Mojarro said.

Comments have been edited for length and clarity.