Managing religious freedom at the office

April 8, 2015

How can we be sensitive to people’s beliefs while trying to run our businesses efficiently? As a business owner, it’s likely that you employ people of various cultures and religious backgrounds. That’s partly why South Africa is such a great place to live, right? Freedom of religion, belief and opinion is protected under the Constitution. 

The Constitutional Court has defined the concept of freedom of religion as including the right to have a belief and the right to express such belief in practice. In South Africa, we celebrate our diversity and work hard to embrace our differences. But how does this translate when you have people from various religions with different beliefs working under one roof? You have a duty to accommodate the religious beliefs of your employees but you also have your business to think of. Perhaps there may be some leeway in how you handle certain situations.

In an ideal work environment, the religious beliefs of an employee, or of the employer, do not cause conflict. We are all free to practice our beliefs as we choose, as long as the work gets done. However, in reality, there are many issues that can lead to friction. The faithful practice their religion in a number of ways, including styles of dress, the way of wearing one’s hair, trying to recruit others, following certain diets, praying, fasting, avoiding certain language or behaviour, and observing certain religious holidays. In other words, the very nature of religion provides ample ground for differences of opinion at work and perhaps even more so in small businesses.

As an employer, your responsibility is to be sensitive to your employees’ point of view regarding their religious practices. Consider the employee who is unable to work on Saturdays because of a religious belief or practice. You might consider discussing an exchange of shifts with another employee. This way, business doesn’t suffer and the employee feels her religious rights are observed. If a Christian employee wears a cross as a symbol of his religion and he is not advocating that others must do the same, then his religious expression is easily accommodated. Similarly, supplying a prayer room for Muslim employees is just a simple, but invaluable consideration of their faith.

The willing employer can make various accommodations for religious groups or amend employment policies and practices to recognise significant religious practices of the major religious groupings but this can only be done insofar as it is commercially viable or practical. If a business does not trade on Sundays or Public Holidays, then allowing employees to work on Sundays instead of Saturdays or exchanging one religious holiday for other religious holidays is simply not economically practical. Businesses should adopt those measures that best suit their operations, are practical and match the culture of the business. The market or religious profile of the business’s customers may also impact these decisions. It is clear that employers need to communicate effectively with job-interviewees about the requirements of a job before appointing someone. This will go a long way to avoiding clashes between the requirements of the job and religious freedoms.

Although religion is often an inflammatory subject, open and constructive communication with staff on these issues is vital. The best you can do is handle each unique situation with care, and always consider both sides.

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