In a previous blog, we summarised the recent case of Groff v. Dejoy, where the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously clarified the undue hardship standard under Title VII, a federal law in the United States that prohibits employment discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex, and national origin.
The decision is in line with a general global trend in other common law based jurisdictions towards inclusivity in the workplace and the notion that an employer simply cannot deny such requests without at least a legitimate consideration of whether an accommodation based upon belief system can be made. Many employers acknowledge the importance of fostering a work environment that values and embraces diversity, equity and inclusion, which includes recognising and respecting religious differences. The challenge for all employers lies in ensuring that these considerations are balanced with commerciality. Additionally, multinational corporations need help ensuring compliance with the legal standards set by all the countries in which they operate, given the variations in standards and requirements across different countries.
Our international employment practitioners have provided some insights below for multinational employers regarding their obligations to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Hong Kong to highlight some of the differences in each jurisdiction.
Groff v. Dejoy and the new U.S. standard addressing employee religious accommodations
In Groff v. Dejoy, the Court rejected the long-standing de minimis standard established in the TWA v. Hardison case, which held that employers cannot avoid meeting religious requests simply by arguing that it would cost them more than a trivial amount. Instead, the Court stated that an accommodation imposes an undue hardship on the employer only if it substantially increases costs directly related to business operations. Additionally, the Court emphasised that the impact of accommodation on co-workers is considered an undue hardship only if it affects the overall conduct of the business. Based on this new standard, the Court ruled that an accommodation that may compel other employees to work overtime does not automatically meet the criteria for undue hardship.
Although the case concerned accommodating a Christian’s observance of the Sabbath day, the obligation is not limited to traditional Judeo-Christian concerns. Amici representing the interests of many religions and faiths filed briefs arguing for a higher standard for many religions and faith practices. In the end, employers in the U.S. and in other common law states face an interesting question—does the ruling put larger employers with more resources under a greater obligation to make such accommodations than smaller employers with more limited resources? Only time, and jurisprudence, will settle that question.
While there is no positive statutory duty in England and Wales for an employer to make reasonable adjustments to the work environment for religious belief, in the same way as the law of discrimination so clearly applies to disabilities, an employer would be at peril in failing to accommodate or at least trying its best to accommodate working constraints around employee belief systems.
The UK Equality Act 2010 prohibits both direct or indirect discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in the workplace. Whilst direct discrimination is wholly prohibited, there are exceptions where indirect discrimination might be justified, where the contentious practice is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. Case law in this area is both legion and fact specific. An (easy and oversimplistic) illustration of this is where an item of religious clothing is prohibited for health and safety reasons or to ensure the personal safety of the employees. This is a legitimate aim and, provided it is reasonable in all of the circumstances, it is likely to be held to be lawful.
Had Mr Groff bought this action in England and Wales, the analysis would be different because the UK has never really had the same “de minimis” standard as the United States has. The claim would most likely present under the auspices of indirect discrimination, and it would be for the employer to demonstrate that insisting Mr Groff work Sundays contrary to his beliefs or disciplining him for failing to work Sundays would be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. The way this works in practice, in our experience, is that the employer must show it had little practical choice but to adhere to the policy in issue for sound operational reasons. But, employers must always start with a view to seeking a way to accommodate such requests if they are legitimate. Minor costs of waiving this requirement would probably not justify enforcing it, but major costs or other operational constraints attendant in doing so might.
Some critics in the UK claim that the Equality Act fails to provide the requisite protection for those seeking to assert their religious freedom. This has led to calls for clearer duties, not dissimilar to those imposed in the area of disability discrimination, to be established for religious rights. The Equality Act and the relevant code of practice supporting it make it clear that the law encourages balanced, pragmatic reasoning that should be engaged on a case-by-case basis by employers. The key is respect for the tenets of the religion or belief system and a genuine attempt to accommodate it within the operational parameters of the enterprise.
Similar to the UK, there is no positive obligation to make adjustments to accommodate religious practices under Australian law. It is likely that an equivalent claim in Australia would have been argued on the basis of indirect discrimination, alleging that the employer’s requirement to work on Sundays was a requirement that (while appearing to apply equally to everyone) had a discriminatory impact by disadvantaging employees with religious commitments on that day. The lawfulness of any such requirement (and the capacity to enforce it) will turn on an assessment of whether the requirement is reasonable or not.
When assessing reasonableness, relevant factors include: whether a less discriminatory alternative exists; whether it would be as effective, efficient and convenient; and the time, cost, and effort of not discriminating. While cost is one factor that will be considered, a de minimis cost impact is unlikely to be sufficient (on its own) to demonstrate reasonableness.
What is reasonable (and therefore lawful) for one employer might not be reasonable for another. Employers are expected to balance the discriminatory impact and the interest of individuals, as well as the broader objectives of promoting substantive equality. Less discriminatory alternatives need to be considered on a case-by-case basis, with potentially discriminatory requirements only used where these can be justified as reasonable.
In Hong Kong, there is no statutory protection against religious discrimination. In fact, there are only four anti-discrimination ordinances in Hong Kong covering sex, race disability, and family status. It may, however, be possible for an employee to bring a claim under the race anti-discrimination ordinance in respect of religion if the argument was made that the race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin, and the religion were intrinsically linked – certainly, we are aware of complaints being made to the Equal Opportunities Commission in Hong Kong by Muslims in respect of being treated discriminatorily due to wearing hijabs, although there have been no reported court cases of this nature. Therefore, practically, if an employee wanted their employer to accommodate their religious beliefs in the workplace, they could raise this internally first, through a complaint/grievance, and could then escalate it to the Equal Opportunities Commission or the District Court, if the matter was not resolved to their satisfaction.
Even though there is no positive statutory obligation for an employer to accommodate employee requests regarding religious beliefs in Hong Kong, as a matter of good practice, had Mr Groff made his request to a Hong Kong employer, the employer should have properly assessed whether it was reasonable to accommodate the request. In doing so, the risks of any indirect racial discrimination claim relating to the religion of certain racial groups should be considered, and, if the employer was minded to reject the request, the reason for refusal should be legitimate and objective (e.g. based on costs or operational/business needs).
Further, if Mr Groff was employed under a continuous contract (i.e. employed continuously for at least four weeks, with at least 18 hours worked each week), he would also have been entitled to at least one rest day per week in Hong Kong. In that case, the employer could, subject to operational needs, appoint Sunday as Mr Groff’s weekly rest day to accommodate his request and discharge its statutory obligations.
The above examples have been chosen to highlight some of the differences between key jurisdictions, however, we are working with our clients across jurisdictions globally to ensure that they are compliant.
Seyfarth’s International Employment Team and International Dispute Resolution Group collaborate closely with multinational clients to address the complexities and opportunities that impact their cross-border operations. With our extensive expertise in International Labour and Employment matters, Seyfarth is uniquely equipped to assist in striking a balance between commercial considerations and the implementation of equity and inclusion best practices. Our global experience allows us to provide comprehensive legal guidance, develop and execute diversity and inclusion strategies, and track progress towards meaningful change.
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