Employers must not discriminate against employees on the grounds of their religion or belief. But, as with a recent incident that involved a Muslim bus driver, what happens if faith gets in the way of running your business?

Since the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 were introduced, it has been unlawful to treat an employee any less favourably because of their religion or belief. Should this happen, it will amount to "direct" discrimination. Thankfully, this type of claim is now rare mainly due to an increased awareness of the law among employers but it is still easy to get caught out on "indirect" discrimination.

"Indirect" discrimination occurs when a "provision, criterion or practice" is applied that disadvantages an employee but which cannot be justified on business grounds, for example.

Praying on the job

The potential for religion and work to clash was recently highlighted when a Muslim bus driver stopped mid-way around his route to pray in the aisle. For five minutes, nobody could get on or off the bus, causing a considerable delay.

As you might expect, his employer received numerous complaints. On being pulled up for his actions, he pointed out that his "religious duty" meant he had to pray a number of times each day. It was subsequently agreed that his religious observance would only take place during breaks.

Other problems can easily arise. Some religions require fasting at certain times of the year or you might have to deal with multiple requests for holiday leave during religious festivals. So how do you manage employees, yet stay on the right side of the law?

It is unwise to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, assess each case individually and decide, taking the following into account:

l Your organisation: the size of your business is relevant. For example, smaller employers will be unable to cope with multiple holiday requests or those that fall at particular times of the year.

l Financial impact: consider the costs involved for example, if staff demand kosher or halal meat at a staff function rather than accepting a vegetarian option, this could be unreasonable.

l Impact: look at the knock-on effect for example, agreeing to breaks at particular times so an employee can pray could disrupt your business.

l Inter-group tension: think about all employee groups never favour one particular religion.

l Burden on staff: finally, consider the inconvenience to other employees. If they have to work extra hours to accommodate an employee’s religion, they could raise a grievance.

Additional help

If you are unsure about an employee’s religion, why not ask? In fact, this will strongly go in your favour if a problem later emerges. The Employers Forum on Belief www.efbelief.org.uk can point you in the right direction.