Religious Diversity and the Workplace (2014)

This paper was prepared as the basis for a presentation by Pluralism Project senior staff at the professional development workshop entitled ” Managing Religious Diversity in the Workplace: An Exploration of Theory and Practice,” held in conjunction with the American Academy of Management’s annual conference New Orleans, Louisiana, August 7, 2004. It was updated in May 2014.

The Pluralism Project at Harvard University documents the religious diversity of the United States, with particular attention to the Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and other minority traditions. The workplace is obviously a site that is impacted by religious diversity and it is well known that issues of religious diversity in the workplace are becoming more prominent. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of l964 prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals because of their religion in hiring, firing, and other terms and conditions of employment. Title VII also requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of an employee or prospective employee, unless doing so would create an undue hardship upon the employer. This applies not only to schedule changes or leave for religious observances, but also to religious dress or grooming practices. Accommodations for religious garb may include allowing employees to wear religious head coverings (such as a Jewish yarmulke or a Muslim hijab), or to wear certain hairstyles or facial hair (such as Rastafarian dreadlocks or Sikh uncut hair and beard). It also includes the employer’s acceptance of religious prohibitions against wearing certain garments (such as pants or miniskirts). The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that “undue hardship” means that an employer should not incur more than minimal costs in order to accommodate an employee’s religious practices. “More than minimal costs” have been interpreted by the EEOC to mean a range of detriments brought on by requested accommodation, such as diminishing worker efficiency, requiring more than ordinary administrative costs, or impairing workplace safety.[1] 

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in Washington, D.C., there was a substantial rise in the number of complaints of workplace harassment or discharge due to religion, from 1388 complaints in FY 1992 to 2572 complaints in FY 2003. In 2011, the number topped at 4151 complaints, but has steadily declined since, with the most recent number (FY 2013) at 3721.[2] Much of the increase represents a backlash against Muslims and Sikhs in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 2001. Some may be explained by an increased awareness of rights and the channels for redressing wrongs. This legal framework of rights is an important precursor to a moral framework for looking at religious diversity in the workplace. The EEOC website offers information on religious discrimination, which includes question and answer sections for employees and employers that offer short scenarios and analysis, as well as further resources.[3]

Dr. Douglas Hicks (a Pluralism Project affiliate), in his landmark study Religion and the Workplace: Pluralism, Spirituality, Leadership (Cambridge University Press, 2003) offers a moral argument for the framework of respectful pluralism that “allows employees to express, within constraints to be outlined, their religious as well as political, cultural, spiritual, and other commitments within the workplace. In addition, no religious tradition should receive undue institutional preference or priority.”[4] He offers a critique of institutionally sponsored workplace spirituality (and civil religion) as follows:

Civil religion and workplace spirituality each shift the institutional locus of religious expression from the church, synagogue, or mosque to another public institution- the state or the company respectively. The presence of these different institutions raises the important question of identity and possibly competing loyalties. Both civil religion and workplace spirituality de-emphasize the possible conflicts and difficulties often faced by employees who are also religious practitioners. Jews, Christians, or Muslims who are employees of a company may well have reason to question the practices of their company on religio-moral grounds. Institutionally sponsored workplace spirituality does not recognize such potential conflicts. … institutionally expressing workplace spirituality is clearly not synonymous with allowing individual employees to express their beliefs and practices at work. This critical view of workplace spirituality should not be understood, then, as a criticism of individuals who seek to live out their specific religious or spiritual worldview at work. On the contrary, it lays the groundwork for the creation of a level playing field for religious and spiritual expression among employees of all backgrounds.[5]

As a step towards that level playing field, it is useful to look at a range of specific cases of religious discrimination in the workplace. The Pluralism Project’s Religious Diversity News archive offers a sampling of workplace cases reported in the media from 1997 to 2011. (Click here for more up-to-date news stories on religion in the workplace.) While cases of religious discrimination and accommodation have involved a wide range of traditions and practitioners, this paper will very briefly overview cases involving Muslims, Sikhs, Rastafarians, and Wiccans.


Religious discrimination against Muslims in the workplace has included harassment and discharge. For example, on December 7, 2003 Chicago Tribune article reported on an Arab American waiter in Baltimore who was sent home from work because his name is Mohamad.[6] That same year, a Trans State Airline pilot was fired because of his religion.[7] Harassment cases are numerous.

For some Muslim women, the wearing of a religious headscarf (hijab) has brought repercussions in the workplace. Legal redress has been sought for a variety of cases concerning the right to this religious attire: by a Pennsylvania policewoman who was barred from wearing hijab on the job, by an applicant who was denied a uniformed airline job, and by an Arizona woman working for a rental car company. In more recent cases (2011-2013) involving clothing stores such as Old Navy and Abercrombie & Fitch, Muslim women in hijab have been fired because their religious attire “conflicts with company dress code” or have been assigned tasks in the back of the store, beyond public view.[8] It is also likely that women who apply for employment wearing the headscarf face discrimination in hiring, much of which may go undocumented. The Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation has compiled statistics and developed a resource to educate Muslim women about their rights in the workplace.[9]

Accommodation of Muslim prayer times, both in terms of space and breaks from work, has had to be negotiated. Many Muslims individually pray five times per day, so some of these times will fall during the working hours. Prayer involves kneeling and facing towards Mecca; some employers have been able to accommodate the need for specific prayer space. Washing stations, used before prayer, have at times been supplied by employers. On Fridays the mid-day prayer is communal, so many Muslims need time to visit the local mosque. In some cases, this time off has been accommodated by lengthening the workday for these employees. The daily breaks necessary from work for prayer must be negotiated to meet the employee’s protected right to their religion while not placing an undue burden on the employer. In 2010 Electrolux agreed to change a break time to allow Muslim employees to participate in prayer at sunset during Ramadan, although concerns continued into the next year regarding the length of time allotted.[10]

Aversion to transporting alcohol has come up as a religious issue; a Muslim truck driver declined to transport beer, since alcohol consumption is forbidden by his religion. He will have to show that accommodating his request would not cause undue hardship to the employer. The Pluralism Project has developed a case study of the controversy at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport where transporting passengers carrying alcohol became a concern for Somali Muslim taxi drivers as well as for airport officials seeking to strike a balance between customer service and accommodation.


In addition to Muslims, members of the Sikh tradition have been particularly impacted by religious intolerance in the work place, due to increased discrimination post-9/11 and the outward visibility of religious attire. Many workplace cases have revolved around the men’s turbans and/or untrimmed beards. Sikh women may also cover their heads or wear a form of turban. A long standing court case involving Sikh Traffic Enforcement Agents in New York City was resolved in 2004 so that Sikh officers would not be fired for violations of dress code.[11] Sikhs struggling for their right to wear the turban have been subway drivers, cab drivers, policemen, and attorneys wearing the turban while visiting clients.

One example is Kevin Harrington, a Sikh subway operator whose quick action on the morning of September 11, 2001 saved the lives of passengers on his train. Harrington brought a case against The Metropolitan Transit Authority after being told he must remove his turban or affix a logo to it or else he would be removed from his post and reassigned to working in a storage yard. Harrington’s case and several others brought against the MTA by The Sikh Coalition, a group formed to educate and protect the civil and religious rights of Sikhs, and the Center for Constitutional Rights led to the change in MTA policy; in May 2012 the MTA announced that it would change the uniform policy to accommodate Sikh and Muslim employees.[12] In 2010, two Sikhs were granted exceptions by the U.S. Army to serve in active duty while wearing a turban. More gains were made in January 2014, when the U.S. Defense Department released regulations ensuring the rights of all religious-minority service members to display their beliefs outwardly—such as wearing a turban, scarf or beard—as long as the practices do not interfere with military discipline, order or readiness.  The carrying of a ritual knife (kirpan) as mandated by the Sikh religion has been an issue for employers. Read more about Harrington’s case and other examples in the essays “The Five K’s and the Courts” and “Encounter in the Courts” featured in On Common Ground: World Religions in America.

The Sikh Coalition has been a leader in raising awareness about, and advocating for, Sikh religious rights in the workplace. For instance, the Coalition compiled a simple guide to assist employers in creating a culturally sensitive workplace for Sikh employees and it is a strong supporter of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA).[13] If enacted, this proposed amendment to Title VII would prevent most forms of discrimination against employees or prospective employees on the basis of religion by limiting employers’ discretion to decline accommodation. Currently, under federal law, employers can refuse to accommodate religious employees without showing that an accommodation would entail a significant difficulty or expense; in addition, employers can segregate visibly religious employees from customers and the general public, even if such employees are otherwise qualified for a job.


For Rastafarians, the dreadlocks that are a religiously mandated hairstyle have raised issues in the workplace. There have been cases brought up against FEDEX for firings over dreadlocks, and Greyhound paid a settlement of $33,500 to end a discrimination in hiring case brought by a Rastafarian man in Buffalo, New York. He was denied a driving position due to his long dreadlocks; the positions were filled by lesser-qualified candidates. These cases seek to redress more than the wrong to the particular individual, but to change the problematic corporate culture as well. “As part of the settlement, Greyhound will be required to train its hiring officials about laws prohibiting employment discrimination and distribute anti-discrimination policies and complaint procedures to all employees.”[14]


Issues involving Wiccans include a furor over a Wiccan hired as a prison chaplain in Wisconsin. The individual had previously served in the position as a volunteer and so had a proven record of accomplishment as well as being the outstanding candidate. However, her religious affiliation was anathema to many.[15]

Clearly there are issues that arise that are specific to each religious tradition, with some issues that are comparable across them. Education is key to the accommodation of religious rights of members of minority religions, which in turn protects the principles of religious rights for all. Presumably, many more situations arise that are resolved through education and negotiation, while the media may report more of the cases involving litigation. Additional research and writing about the specific practices of different religious traditions and examples of appropriate accommodations is important for the development of research on religion in the workplace. Hick’s theoretical framework of respectful pluralism does much to advance the thinking about religious diversity in the workplace, and it specifically calls for examination of areas of conflict. Disputes over clothing mandated by religion, hairstyles, carrying of religious implements, and other pragmatic concerns must be studied since they offer measures of the realities, challenges, and extent of religious diversity in workplaces in the United States.

[1] For more on Title VII and examples of “undue hardships” see “Religious Accomodation in the Workplace: Your Rights and Obligations.” Accessed May 2014.↩︎

[2] “Religion-Based Charges.” Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Accessed May 2014.↩︎

[3] “Religious Discrimination.” Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Accessed May 2014.↩︎

[4] Hicks, Douglas. Religion and the Workplace: Pluralism, Spirituality, Leadership. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 2003, 159.↩︎

[5] Ibid., 121.↩︎

[6] “Muslim Hotel Waiter Sees Bias in Removal.” The Chicago Tribune. December 7, 2003. A few days later, the Guardian reported that the Secret Service, after initially denying involvement, admitted responsibility for the action. See “Arab Waiter Barred from Bush Dinner.” The Guardian. December 11, 2003. Accessed May 2014.↩︎

[7] “Muslim Pilot Fired Due to Religion and Appearance, EEOC Say in Post-9/11 Backlash Discrimination Suit.” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. July 17, 2003. Accessed May 2014.↩︎

[8] “Abercrombie & Fitch Settles Suits Over Muslim Head Scarves.” The Wall Street Journal. September 23, 2013. Accessed May 2014.↩︎

[9] “Discrimination Against Muslim Women. American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project. Date unknown. Accessed May 2014.↩︎

[10] “EEOC and Electrolux Reach Settlement in Religious Accommodation Charge Brought by Muslim Employees.” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. August 6, 2010. Accessed April 29, 2016; “Muslim St. Cloud Electrolux Workers File EEOC Complaint.” Minnesota Public Radio News. August 23, 2011. Accessed May 2014.↩︎

[11] “Sikh Traffic Enforcement Agent Returns to Work in Landmark Case.” New York City Commission on Human Rights. 2004. Accessed May 2014.↩︎

[12] “Sikh Segregation Ends at MTA.” The Sikh Coalition. June 1, 2012. Accessed May 2014.↩︎

[13] “Information for Employers.” The Sikh Coalition.; “WRFA Campaign.” The Sikh Coalition. Accessed May 2014.↩︎

[14] “Greyhound Pays in Bias Case Over Dreadlocks.” January 17, 2002, The Buffalo News, B4.↩︎

[15] “Wiccan Rev. Witch Raises Some Brows at Wisconsin Prison.” The Seattle Times/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. December 9, 2001. Accessed May 2014.↩︎