Avoiding religious discrimination through awareness

Dec 15, 2014 | Good Management

It’s common sense that the best way to deal with discrimination in the workplace is to avoid it happening in the first place, so here are our top tips for making sure your business doesn’t have a problem. We are focusing on religion in the workplace this month, however many of these tips apply more widely to most types of discrimination.

No excuse for ignorance

A lot of discrimination or potential discrimination comes from ignorance, and this applies particularly to indirect discrimination. Indirect discrimination is where a policy, practice or rule is applied to everyone in an organisation or a group of people, but which disproportionately negatively affects employees who have what is called a “protected characteristic” under the Equality Act 2010. This type of discrimination can often be because the person instigating the rule or practice simply hasn’t considered how it might affect protected groups.

Rather than addressing the situation after members of a protected group have complained, and having to back-pedal and deal with disgruntled employees and the resulting impact on morale and relationships, make sure managers know that when making a change of this kind, they consider whether what they are proposing might have a disproportionately negative impact on (for example) members of a certain religion, and address that possibility upfront.

With religion particularly, a certain amount of education is crucial. The requirements and practices of religions vary widely, as do levels of religious observance among individual members of religions, so consider specific training for staff in religious awareness so that the possibility of indirect discrimination through ignorance can be avoided.

Address misconceptions and increase knowledge

In terms of religion in particular, there can be a lot of misconceptions and genuine ignorance about requirements or practices, and it’s important to address these, particularly if your workforce profile includes several members of one religion or several different religions. If your managers know what major religious holidays there are and when these occur, and know what kind of adjustments might be required for different religions and to which particular religious practices these adjustments may apply, this will smooth the way for requests relating to religion, or even enable managers to proactively address these, for example when designing shift rotas or holiday planning.

Engage your local community

Your workforce may well largely come from your local community, and if a particular religion or religions are well-represented among your employee population, there may be a church or other religious organisation locally who might be happy to help you in training staff, or might be keen to build links with you as a local employer. They also might be prepared to help you develop policies and procedures which are relevant and effective.

Policies and procedures

Needless to say, a crucial part of avoiding religious (or any) discrimination in your business is making sure that your organisation’s commitments and expectations are clearly laid out. But it’s not just about having a good Equality and Diversity policy. You need to make sure all your policies and procedures are written with equality and diversity in mind; that requirements within those policies don’t indirectly discriminate and that due consideration is given to religion and belief issues when policies are being drafted.

Consulting employees when drafting policies can be a good step, as they may identify issues and be in a position to propose alternatives or adjustments. Getting it right before a policy is issued is clearly preferable to having to alter it following a complaint.

Not only must policies be drafted well, but they also should be communicated effectively, and you should ensure that employees understand them and apply the principles within them at all times.

Review policies regularly to ensure they remain fit-for-purpose and relevant. When reviewing, look at changing legislative requirements, current best practice, business requirements and your workforce profile.

Awareness training

The prospect of equality awareness training has caused many an eye to roll and will no doubt continue to do so, but there’s no getting away from the fact that it is good practice to provide training on equality issues, and makes good business sense as well. There is little point spending time and effort drafting policies and procedures that carefully take equality issues into account if employees are not trained in applying those policies. You may be clear that as an organisation you are firmly against harassment or discrimination, but if staff don’t have a clear understanding of what type of behaviour is unacceptable or may be offensive, the policy is wasted.

Basing training on realistic issues and examples that are relevant to your business makes the training more effective. If managers receive training which incorporates how they should deal with a situation they genuinely encounter, they will feel the training to be actually useful rather than a box-ticking exercise, and will give it more credibility as a result.

The common theme across all these tips is that education and awareness are key to avoiding religious discrimination in your business. Knowledge is power and a good understanding of religious issues and how they relate to the workplace in real terms can make a huge difference in ensuring that the principles of equality you want your business to run by are genuinely embraced and fulfilled across the organisation.

If you need help increasing equality awareness or legal compliance in your business through policy development or training, do get in touch.