HR Support with Religious Harassment at Work

Editor's Note: Understand how to eliminate religious harassment at work.

Beth P. ZollerOverview: Harassment against an individual based on his or her religion is strictly prohibited by Title VII as well as various state and local laws. Religious harassment may take the form of hostile work environment harassment or quid pro quo harassment.

Quid pro quo religious harassment occurs when a harasser demands that an individual comply with the harasser's religious demands and engage in conversion or religious worship or otherwise suffer an adverse employment action. Religious harassment can also arise in the context of a hostile work environment such as teasing, jokes and other offensive, threatening or humiliating conduct based on an employee's religion.

In order to effectively prevent religious harassment, employers should institute a policy that religious harassment will not be tolerated under any circumstances. Employers should provide employees with a multichannel complaint system which will allow them to bring a claim of religious harassment. Further, employers should provide employee training and development on religious harassment to all employees and supervisors and make sure that they respond to harassment complaints in a timely and effective manner.

Trends: Employers should recognize that complaints of religious harassment are increasing and the EEOC has filed a number of lawsuits on behalf of Muslim and Arab workers alleging that interrupted prayer breaks, discrimination based on employee attire and requested employee name changes constitute religious harassment. Further, employers should be aware that states such as California law have recently passed measures to directly address religious harassment in the workplace and ensure a more tolerant and diverse workforce.

In Vance v. Ball State University, 570 U.S. (2013), the Supreme Court issued a critical decision which makes it more difficult for employees to prove that an employer is vicariously liable for a supervisor’s discriminatory or harassing conduct. Specifically, the Court held that a supervisor must be someone with the direct power and authority to take tangible employment actions against an employee. This issue is of primary importance when determining whether an employer is vicariously liable for a supervisor's actions in cases of harassment. Under the current law, if the harasser is a supervisor, the employer is automatically vicariously liable for the supervisor's actions. If the harasser is not a supervisor, the plaintiff must prove that the employer was negligent and that the employer knew or should have known of the harassment in order to be liable. This is a much higher burden to meet.

Author: Beth P. Zoller, JD, Legal Editor

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HR guidance on handling the issue of religious harassment and preventing its occurrence in the workplace.