EMPLOYERS: WHAT IS YOUR DUTY TO ACCOMMODATE RELIGIOUS BELIEFS?

“The employer has a duty to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious freedom unless it is impossible to do so without causing itself undue hardship. It is not enough that it may have a legitimate commercial rationale. The duty of reasonable accommodation imposed on the employer is one of modification or adjustment to a job or the working environment that will enable an employee operating under the constraining tenets of her religion to continue to participate or advance in employment” (Extract from judgment below)

Our law makes a dismissal automatically unfair if ‘… the reason for the dismissal is that the employer … unfairly discriminated against an employee, directly or indirectly, on any arbitrary ground, including, but not limited to race, gender, sex, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, political opinion, culture, language, marital status or family responsibility” (emphasis added).

Employers need to tread with extreme caution here, as a recent Labour Appeal Court decision once again warns…

Dismissed for refusing to work on Saturdays

  • A manager was required, along with all other managers, to work on Saturdays doing stock-taking.
  • She refused on the basis that she was a Seventh Day Adventist, a religion requiring her to observe the period between sundown on Friday and sundown on Saturday evening as the holy Sabbath, during which time she was not permitted to work. Her various suggestions on how she could be accommodated were rejected by her employer.
  • She was dismissed for “incapacity” and her dispute over the fairness of that dismissal eventually reached the Labour Appeal Court.
  • The Court held her dismissal to have been automatically unfair, and ordered her employer to pay her 12 months’ remuneration plus costs.

Who must prove what?

The actual outcome of this particular case was largely dependent on its specific facts, so as always take legal advice on your own situation.

But the Court’s findings provide a good example of how our laws on automatic discrimination are applied in practice –

  • Firstly, it was for the employee to show that her religion was the “true or real or dominant reason for her dismissal and that a sufficient [connection] exists between her dismissal and her religion”. She had to produce evidence “which is sufficient to raise a credible possibility that an automatically unfair dismissal has taken place”, whereupon the employer could “prove the contrary by producing evidence to show that the reason for the dismissal did not fall within the circumstances envisaged … for constituting an automatically unfair dismissal”.
  • The Court rejected the employer’s claim that the employee’s refusal to do the stock take was the dominant reason for the dismissal rather than her “personal convictions that underlay it”. She was, it held, “dismissed and discriminated against for complying with and practicing the tenets of her religion”.
  • Next, said the Court, “the decisive enquiry … is whether the discrimination is fair, rationally connected to a legitimate purpose and does not unduly impair or impact on [the employee’s] dignity”, it being up to the employer to prove such a defence.
  • In particular, a dismissal “may be fair if the reason for the dismissal is based on an inherent requirement of the particular job”, but then the employer would also have to prove “that it is impossible to accommodate the individual employee without imposing undue hardship or insurmountable operational difficulty”.

On the basis of the evidence available to it, the Court found that the employer did not “reasonably accommodate” the employee. The dismissal was accordingly automatically unfair.