Religious discrimination is one of the most common forms of unlawful discrimination in the workplace. Often, complaints arise because many forms of religion are misunderstood, leading to certain rules or practices inadvertently discriminating against particular groups of people. Religious discrimination also extends to certain beliefs.
The following guide for employers to religious discrimination in the workplace looks at what this means, with illustrative examples of how this can arise. We also look at the different ways in which any allegations of religious discrimination should be dealt with, and practical steps that can be taken to help prevent this type of unlawful discrimination.
What is religious discrimination in the workplace?
With such a culturally diverse population in the UK comes a wide range of religions and belief systems, where religious discrimination refers to the unfavourable treatment of a person or group of people for any reason connected to their religion or beliefs.
Under the Equality Act 2010, religion and belief are protected characteristics, where it is unlawful for an employer to treat someone unfairly in the workplace because they possess either characteristic. The Act defines religion as any religion, including a lack of religion, and defines belief as any religious or philosophical belief, including a lack of belief.
These statutory definitions not only include the most commonly followed faiths, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism, but also denominations within these religions, as well as lesser-known religions or sects. This could include, for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, Rastafarianism, Paganism and Scientology.
Additionally, the meaning of belief under the Equality Act, is not limited to religious beliefs. This can extend to wider philosophical beliefs including, for example, atheism, agnosticism, spiritualism and humanism, where a belief need not include faith or worship of a God, although it must affect how someone lives their life or perceives the world. For example, recent case law confirms that gender-critical beliefs are now legally recognised as protected beliefs, but this protection sits equally alongside protection for transgender people.
Impact of religious discrimination on the workplace
Discriminating against someone at work because of the religion they follow or religious beliefs they hold can cause all kinds of issues, where the effects of religious discrimination can be far-reaching, both for the person discriminated against and for the business.
On a practical level, discrimination can result in reduced employee engagement and increased absenteeism, often due to stress-related sick leave where somebody has been badly affected by their unfair treatment at work. In some cases, it can also lead to the loss of a valuable member of staff, with the consequential impact on workforce morale.
In legal terms, discrimination can result in claims for unlawful discrimination and constructive dismissal, where an employee has felt forced to resign. It can also result in claims for automatic unfair dismissal where an employee has been dismissed for a reason relating to their religion or religious beliefs. The financial consequences of a claim can be significant for an employer, from the cost of any damages award to a damaged reputation.
Types of religious discrimination
There are four different types of religious discrimination that can commonly arise in the workplace: direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation.
Direct discrimination at work is where someone is treated less favourably because they follow a certain religion, or hold or even lack certain religious beliefs. The protection against direct discrimination also extends to cases where a person is perceived to be of a certain religion or thought to hold certain religious beliefs, regardless of whether this is true. Equally, a person can be discriminated against if they are associated with someone of a particular religion or belief, such as a friend, relative or work colleague. These types of direct discrimination are known respectively as perceptive or associative discrimination.
Indirect discrimination is instead where the application of a provision, criterion or practice in the workplace puts those people who possess a particular protected characteristic at an unfair disadvantage when compared with others who do not share that same characteristic. This means that religious discrimination does not need to be intentional, but can still be unlawful, provided the outcome is unfair by reason of an individual’s religion or beliefs.
Similarly, although harassment can arise as a result of deliberate actions, things may also be said or done innocently, but still amount to unlawful conduct. Harassment is essentially where an individual is subjected to unwanted conduct which is connected to their religion or beliefs, and that either violates their dignity or creates an offensive working environment for them. Finally, victimisation is subjecting someone to a detriment because they have complained or supported a complaint about harassment or other religious discrimination, or where it is thought someone has complained or supported a complaint, even if untrue.
Examples of religious discrimination at work
There are several ways in which an employee or job applicant can be discriminated against in the workplace, where a person will be protected from religious discrimination whether they are already in employment or applying for a job. This is because the law prohibits discrimination throughout the entire employment lifecycle, from hiring through to firing.
When it comes to direct religious discrimination, examples can include a decision not to hire someone because they are wearing a hijab and thought to be Muslim, while indirect religious discrimination can include requiring a dress code that excludes people who wear certain articles of clothing as part of their faith, such as Sikh men wearing turbans.
Harassment in the workplace can include being pressured by a supervisor not to take prayer breaks or being excluded from social events for disapproving of alcohol as a Mormon. Victimisation in this context can include anything from being ridiculed for complaining about being harassed, to being selected for redundancy due to being seen as disruptive.
Is religious discrimination at work ever lawful?
There are some circumstances when treating someone differently at work due to either their religion or religious beliefs may be lawful under the Equality Act. This could include, for example, an occupational requirement that a job applicant follow or support a certain faith because the nature of the work demands it, for example, in a devout Catholic school.
An employer may also be able to objectively justify a provision, criterion or practice in the workplace if this amounts to a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. It might not count as unlawful discrimination, for example, for staff to wear a hairnet to meet food hygiene standards, even if this means them having to remove a turban or hijab. Still, if allowing a regularly washed head-covering would suffice, this practice may not be justified.
When it comes to justifying any religious discriminatory impact, the scenarios in which discrimination can be defended are rare. Even where there may appear to be a legitimate reason for a particular policy or procedure, alternative options may need to be considered.
How to deal with allegations of religious discrimination
The way in which allegations of religious discrimination should be dealt with can vary, depending on the nature of the allegations and the context within which these have arisen.
Any discrimination, including religious discrimination, is extremely serious. Still, in some circumstances, it may be best to attempt to deal with the matter informally, not least where any alleged unlawful conduct is wholly unintentional. This could include, for example, where members of staff are teasing someone at work for being devoutly religious or holding religious beliefs that are not necessarily mainstream, but without meaning to cause offence. In these cases, a quiet chat to those responsible can quickly put an end to the problem.
However, where an allegation is especially serious, or arises out of a practice at work which impacts a group of people, a more formal and carefully documented approach may be needed. All workers have the right not to be discriminated against by reason of their religion or beliefs, or even any lack of religion or belief. This means that those who are treated unfairly because of what religion they follow, or beliefs they hold, will have the right to raise a formal grievance with their employer or even make a tribunal claim.
The right not to be unlawfully discriminated against, and to bring a claim for compensation before an employment tribunal in relation to this, is a right that extends to everyone, including new recruits and job applicants. There is no length of service requirement to bring an unlawful discrimination claim. Equally, if an employee is dismissed because of their religion or religious beliefs, they may also make a claim for automatically unfair dismissal, for which there is again no continuous service requirement.
When dealing with allegations of religious discrimination from an existing member of staff, where that individual exercises their right to lodge a formal grievance, the employer must ensure that a full and fair procedure is followed. They must also ensure, where there is a case to answer against any other member(s) of staff, that disciplinary action is taken.
In contrast, when dealing with an allegation from a job applicant, where the opportunity to resolve the matter internally is not available, a complaint can easily escalate. In these cases, it is strongly advised to seek expert advice from an employment law specialist.
How to prevent religious discrimination
Fortunately, there are a number of steps that employers can take to help prevent or minimise any incidence of religious discrimination in the workplace, including:
Reviewing any equality and diversity policy: most workplaces will already have an equality and diversity policy in place, although few will make sufficient reference to religious discrimination and how this can easily arise at work. Any policy must clearly set out the stance taken by the organisation in relation to discrimination, harassment and victimisation on grounds of religion and belief, with illustrative examples of what can amount to discrimination and the consequences of behaving in a discriminatory way.
Making staff aware of how to report religious discrimination: any equality and diversity policy should make it clear how staff can lodge a complaint about discrimination, either by reason of their religion or beliefs, or otherwise. One way of doing this is by signposting staff to the workplace grievance procedure which, by law, must be set out in writing. Incidents of discrimination often go unchecked because staff feel unable to speak out, where all complaints of religious or other types of discrimination must be taken seriously, and staff should be reassured that complaints can be made without fear of reprisal.
Reviewing existing workplace policies: in addition to any equality and diversity policy, any other policy and procedure should be reviewed to ensure fairness and inclusivity. It is not uncommon to inadvertently discriminate against job applicants or employees because proper consideration has not been given to how a particular policy or practice will affect those of different faiths. Equally, employers should be sensitive to the needs of their workforce in terms of any faith requirements for different staff, including dress codes, dietary requirements or flexible working arrangements for religious observance.
Providing workplace training: to help eliminate religious discrimination in the workplace, it is not only important for all members of staff to understand the impact and consequences of their own discriminatory conduct, but to educate those responsible for making management decisions in these areas of risk. By rolling out workplace training across the entire workforce, this can help everyone to understand the different types of religions and religious beliefs, including any lesser-known denominations or sects, and to treat each other with dignity and respect, regardless of differences in religious beliefs.
Fostering a safe and inclusive working environment: the employer may not always be directly responsible for any religious discrimination, but they still have a duty to ensure the provision of a safe and inclusive working environment, free from harassment and victimisation. This means taking reasonable steps to prevent this type of unlawful conduct from taking place at work, including harassment by other members of staff, and even third parties not within the employer’s direct control, such as customers or clients.
Supporting and celebrating religious diversity: by actively celebrating how different people live their lives or perceive the world, this can help to create an environment in which everyone feels valued. This could include providing information to help staff understand the significance of certain festivals celebrated by colleagues of different faiths, as well as introducing a calendar of religious holidays to support religious diversity at work. In this way, through leading by example, the employer can cultivate a community of mutual respect, creating a rich and diverse environment in which everyone can thrive.
For specialist advice on any aspect of workplace discrimination, from developing anti-discrimination policies to dealing with complaints of unlawful discrimination, contact us.
Religion & belief discrimination FAQs
What is considered religious discrimination?
Religious discrimination refers to the unfavourable treatment of a person or group of people for any reason connected to their religion or beliefs. This could include being treated less favourably at work for being Muslim or following the Jewish faith.
What are examples of religious discrimination?
Common examples of religious discrimination in the workplace could include being ridiculed by work colleagues for taking prayer breaks at work or implementing a dress code policy that excludes people who wear items of clothing as part of their faith.
What is the Equality Act 2010 religious discrimination?
Under the Equality Act 2010, this sets out several protected characteristics, including religion and belief. This means that if someone is treated less favourably at work because they follow a certain religion, this may amount to unlawful religious discrimination.
How common is religious discrimination UK?
Religious discrimination is one of the most common forms of unlawful discrimination in UK workplaces, especially because many religious beliefs are widely misunderstood. Still, to treat an employee less favourably because of the beliefs they hold is usually unlawful.
Last updated: 29 August 2023