Specifying religion – when is it a genuine occupational requirement?

Dec 22, 2014 | Good Management

Most employers know that it’s not ok to discriminate on religious grounds, either during employment or when recruiting. You can’t treat someone less favourably on the grounds of religion (which includes not treating members of one religion more favourably than everyone else), and should make adjustments where possible to accommodate religious requirements, in areas such as dress code, working hours or other working practices.

So far so good. But are there any times when actually religion is a reasonable thing to take into account with your decision making, or even to specifically require? The answer is yes, in very limited circumstances. Under the Equality Act 2010, where there is a genuine occupational requirement to discriminate, this can be done. This situation is most likely to occur during recruitment but could also apply to promotion, training or even dismissal.

An occupational requirement means it must be genuinely and justifiably necessary for the person fulfilling the role to be of a certain religion, or to follow a certain set of beliefs. This means it would be difficult to justify someone in, for example, an administrative or business support role to be of a certain religion, but in a role where religious guidance was fundamental, it might be a genuine requirement.

The requirement must also be a proportionate means to achieve a legitimate aim. This means that even if, for example, there is a legitimate business aim that certain tasks within a role must be performed by someone of the specified religion, the employer must be able to show that requiring the person fulfilling the role to be of the religion is proportionate. If those tasks could be easily redistributed and the remainder performed by someone not meeting the religious requirement, then specifying religion may not be considered proportionate.

There is also a slightly wider exception for organisations which have a particular ethos based on a religion or set of beliefs. For these organisations it may not be necessary to demonstrate that the particular tasks being carried out by the person need to be performed by someone of a particular religion. Instead they could demonstrate that following a set of beliefs is necessary in the context of the work and of the organisation. This could be something like a significant senior figure in a religious organisation, who may represent that organisation externally, such as a chief executive.

Even then, it is certainly not easy to demonstrate a genuine occupational requirement to effectively discriminate, and extreme care should be exercised before considering specifying religion or belief as part of selection criteria.

If you have a role that you think would be best performed by someone from a specific religion, think carefully about why exactly you believe that to be the case. What is it that you feel someone from a specific religion would offer, and could those skills, attributes and experience come from somewhere else? For example, if the role requires in depth knowledge of a certain religion, that knowledge could come from somewhere else. Could the role be reorganised or redistributed to enable you to remove the requirement?

Make sure you consider roles on an individual basis and don’t be tempted to apply criteria in a blanket form across either an organisation or a specific department or function. Look at the actual role you are recruiting and consider it carefully before specifying. Each time you recruit, review the situation as roles and responsibilities and business needs evolve and an exception that was justifiable once may not necessarily be the next time you are looking for a new recruit.

If you are considering specifying a religion requirement as part of a recruitment campaign, or when considering candidates for promotion, it is always sensible to take proper advice first, to ensure you are meeting the standards for a genuine occupational requirement and also because a professional adviser may be able to help you consider other adjustments or solutions to enable you to avoid having to specify.

If you have any further queries and need some advice, do get in touch.