You often hear employers proudly describe their multi-cultural workforce as a “melting pot,” says Jim Moore.
But using this analogy suggests that they may not understand what inclusion really means.
In a melting pot, individual differences dissolve and unity becomes more important. It is like a stew, where the individual flavours and characteristics of the ingredients blend and merge.
Inclusion is about recognising and valuing these differences, rather than trying to melt them away.
A good diverse workplace is more like a salad – where each individual ingredient maintains its characteristics, but they all come together to produce something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
Under the Equality Act 2010, employers have a duty to consider “reasonable adjustments” for a disability, but there is no similar obligation for religion.
However, one way that employers can show they are inclusive and that they value individual differences is by accommodating workers of all faiths.
Festivals and observances
One example of a significant religious event is Ramadan, which involves a month of fasting and prayer. Where possible, employers should be flexible with working patterns to help employees with the physical and mental challenging aspects of fasting.
This might involve letting staff take their breaks at different times of day or allowing them to work from home or work more flexibly. Islam isn’t the only religion that can require fasting. Buddhists, Hindus, and Jewish people also have days of fasting in their calendars, and Catholics fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
It does not have to be all about fasting either. Diwali is a five-day celebration, celebrated by millions around the world. To accommodate Hindu staff, an employer could offer flexibility around public holidays and let workers take them when they wish. For example, they could let someone work over Good Friday and Easter Monday, and use the two bank holidays during Diwali instead.
These do not have to be permanent arrangements but can send an inclusive signal to a diverse workforce.
Obviously, employers need to balance flexibility with operational requirements. If the job requires people to be physically present, or if you need to maintain staffing levels during peak hours, then your flexibility might be limited.
However, this would still be an opportunity to demonstrate inclusive behaviour. Instead of sending a “why you can’t” message, turn it into a “how we can” discussion. Invite ideas on how to balance your operational requirements with the observance needs of a multicultural and multi-faith workforce.
Just having the conversation sends a powerful signal that you recognise and value these differences.
Employers may have policies governing appearance, including personal jewellery. However, refusing to let Muslim and Sikh workers wear religious garments or headwear could be discriminatory, especially as it is mandatory for people of some religions. It is worth considering some flexibility even where the attire is not mandatory.
In Eweida v British Airways, an employee was prevented from visibly wearing a crucifix on a necklace because it contravened the employer’s dress code. The employee claimed this was discriminatory because workers of other faiths could wear religious items. After a lengthy legal process through the courts, the European Court of Human Rights eventually concluded that allowing the employee to wear the item did not present a significant detriment to the employer’s brand or image.
Employers must also be aware that treating all employees the same way without accommodating their religious needs could amount to indirect discrimination.
For example, in Fhima v Travel Jigsaw, a Jewish job applicant was rejected for a role because they wouldn’t work on a Saturday as they observed the Sabbath. The employment tribunal found this to be indirect discrimination because the employer refused to consider an alternative working pattern.
If the employer can show that a policy is justified – or as the lawyers say, a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim” – then that might be okay.
In the case of Cherfi v G4S Security Services, the employer-provided 24-hour on-site security cover for a specific client, and this prevented a Muslim employee from leaving work on Friday lunch times to attend prayers. Requiring employees to remain on-site was indirectly discriminatory. However, the need to comply with the client’s security contract, together with financial penalties for non-compliance, meant that the tribunal decided the restriction was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
In general, accommodating the religious needs of your workers is the better, and more inclusive, approach. This is a great way to attract and retain diversity in your workforce and help your employer brand.
It also demonstrates that “Diversity and Inclusion” is not just a slogan, but something you actually do.
Jim Moore is employee relations expert at HR consultants Hamilton Nash.
Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at the University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.