How to Request Religious Accommodation at Work

By Nastasha Alli

Under the Ontario Human Rights Code, when employees request time off because of religious reasons, the organization they work for has a duty to accommodate (or make room for) that request.

It’s also wise, however, not to expect a perfect scenario where all your requests will be fully and completely met. With regards to changing shift hours and work load because of religious needs, both the organization and the employees need to understand that there must be some space left for adjustment.

Sandeep Tatla, a lawyer based in Mississauga and president of the Tatla Diversity Group, deals specifically with helping these organizations (including large companies, unions, school boards and small businesses) accommodate the religious needs of its workers.

“The law sets out that as employees, you’re free to practice your religion in the workplace, up to a certain point,” Tatla says.

Every person’s religious belief is protected by the law, she adds, as long as it can be traced back to their religion, and that person shows a sincerely held (honest) belief.

“Over the last couple of years, awareness around religious accommodation has really grown,” says Tatla, “and employers now understand that employees need time off for a religious holy day.”

Cherry Kusi, a store manager who has worked with Tim Hortons for 11 years, says that managers are respectful and aware of the fact that their staff need to fulfill religious obligations and observances. The policy at the store she manages is that as long as the schedule hasn’t been posted yet, the first person to request time off is usually the first person who gets it.

“Talk to me ahead of time,” Kusi says. “If it works, we’ll meet half-way.”

Kusi says that the important thing is to be considerate. As an employee, you need to let your manager know about the religious observances you follow. Don’t expect everyone to know the specific details surrounding your faith, or of the importance of certain holy days on your calendar. Be ready to politely explain what your religious needs are, and why you follow them.

For example, Kusi explains, one of her staff requested for time off on Eid, the most holy day on the Islamic calendar celebrating the end of Ramadan, a month in which Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown. During Ramadan, says Kusi, that particular employee requested for adjustments on her schedule to accommodate her fasting. On the night of Eid, she requested to come in from 1-9 pm instead of 11 am-7 pm. “I said sure,” Kusi relates, “because that means I only have to cover two hours, and she can cover the rest of my shift until 9 o’clock. So it worked for me well (on that occasion).”

According to Tatla, companies can require their employees to work extra hours to balance productivity, or the amount of work done. If it works with the nature of the company’s business (for example, in project-based work or inventory taking), employees may be required to come in early or stay late to make up those lost hours.
If an important criteria in your job search is making sure that your religious observances are followed and met, Tatla suggests doing research about the company.
“For newcomers, the first place to look is always the company’s website,” she says. “Try to do some independent research to see whether this organization actually has any diversity measures and if religion is your concern, see if there’s anything that speaks to that.” For small businesses, Tatla adds, “if you know someone who works there, maybe speak to them confidentially about it.”

With these rights under the law, however, employees also need to remember not to take advantage of religious accommodation requests. Tatla says that organizations are allowed, for instance, to ask for more information about the upcoming religious ceremony or service you are requesting time off for.

Visit the Tatla Diversity Group’s website to get an idea of the steps some companies take in dealing with religious accommodation requests. Look for the checklist on their website to get an idea of the information you should be ready to provide, such as the exact dates of your religious holidays, and details about dress codes and special diets (such as eating Kosher or Halal food).

For Ontario’s official policy on the accommodation of religious observances, visit the Ontario Human Rights Commission. If you have experienced religious discrimination at work and need legal services, you may also contact the Human Rights Legal Support Centre at 416-314-6266 or 1-866-625-5179.

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This story is from the "Inclusive Workplace" InfoBlock. To read more stories on this topic, click here.