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Avoiding Unintended Discrimination

Avoiding Unintended Discrimination


Discrimination in the workplace is an important topic because we don’t always know what it means. Sure, we know the major forms of discrimination such as sexism and racism, yet discrimination can go far beyond that. What if an employee belongs to a new age practice such as Wicca and requests Beltane off to perform a ritual? Not every employee handbook has a section that speaks on witchcraft and rituals. What if you have a vegan employee who you invite to a company BBQ, are you discriminating if you don’t offer an effective vegan option for them? While we might not intend for these things to be a form of discrimination, it doesn’t change the fact that the other side might not see it that way.

To start out, let’s take a look at what the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines as religious discrimination. The following was taken from the official website.

“Religious discrimination involves treating a person (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of his or her religious beliefs. The law protects not only people who belong to traditional, organized religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism but also others who have sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs”.

The part of this that is important to understand comes at the end. “…who have sincerely held religious, ethical, or moral beliefs”. What does that mean exactly? It means that if someone holds a certain belief that is not religious, yet is as strong as a religious belief, it must still be respected the same as a religious belief. For instance, for many vegans, they believe eating meat is immoral. While you can’t force every employee to not eat meat because of them, you can ensure they are not ridiculed or left out of activities because they do not eat meat. To further explain it, let’s look at a situation where this very situation came up.

A bus driver was asked to hand out coupons for Carl Jr. hamburgers as part of a joint promotion. The bus driver was a vegetarian and refused to hand out the coupons due to his own vegetarian lifestyle. Because of his refusal to do so, he was fired by the agency. When they would not hire him back, a lawsuit was created until a settlement was reached. Because his vegetarian beliefs were as important to him as religiously held beliefs, it was seen as discrimination. You can argue rather you believe it was discrimination or not. You can’t, however, argue that it did lead to an expensive headache for the agency.

Another, more complicated situation that might turn up is in dealing with a racist individual. It might seem clear cut that if someone displays racist tendencies outside of the office, that it would be a clear-cut decision to fire them, even though their misguided racism is technically a “sincerely held belief” to them. Yet there have been court cases that did just the opposite. Generally speaking, we have what is called “At-Will Employment” which means you can fire an employee for almost any reason. As long as the reason doesn’t fall under discrimination or breaks a form of contract. Which means if someone is revealed to be racist, even outside of work, you can fire them. Also, one of the rules of discrimination is that accommodating an employee’s believes does not create an undue hardship, and your if company is known for employing a known racist can create a lot of hardship. Freedom of speech also does not apply to a work place. Freedom of speech relates to a person and the government, not a company and a person.  Yet, there is a recent case where a union worker on a picket line yelled racial remarks and because he was on the picket line, his comments couldn’t be used against him. While it is generally okay to fire a worker for displayed racism, it wouldn’t hurt to speak to an employment attorney or human resource expert about it first. 

To help better handle these situations, a few steps you can take are to have an employee handbook that covers all forms of areas and have a dedicated human resource management team to handle internal issues. When you have your payroll and human resource management handled by Vision H.R. you get easy access to human resource experts to help with both of these areas. Contact us today at (386) 255-7070 or click here to request a free quote today.

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