The Collision of Religion and the Workplace

Dealing with religious matters in the workplace is such hot-button issue that a Harvard lecturer labeled it “one of the last taboos.” Yet deal with the matter businesses must, because religious discrimination is a reality that managers are being forced to confront. The problem is that most companies do not have policies in place to do so.

Recent cases about religious discrimination in the workplace have made their way to the Supreme Court, reinforcing the urgency of this situation. One of the most high-profile suits involved a 17-year-old girl whose job application was rejected by Abercrombie & Fitch because she wore a hijab. The fashion retailer claimed her religious headdress went counter to its dress code and brand identity because Abercrombie’s image is clearly defined to market to “cool, good-looking people.”

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the young woman, citing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which states it is illegal to “refuse to hire… because of … individuals’ race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” However, on appeal, the decision was reversed in favor of Abercrombie. The basis of the reversal was that the woman should have made her need for religious accommodation clear when she originally applied for the position.

This back and forth highlights just how problematic the issue is. Many organizations feel justified to create policies that reinforce their brand, as Abercrombie did. However, employers’ policies do not trump the individual’s right to religious freedom, and that is where the problem lies.

Legal experts note that the law does not require employers to honor every request about religious issues an employee requests; they just have to make “reasonable accommodations.” In the end, however, experts point out that employers always look for a good fit with their employees. Experts point out that employers always look for new-hires who get along and can work with their existing employees. The question is whether this understandable desire for “finding a good fit” could lead to discrimination, and whether “reasonable accommodations” is easy to define.


  1. What could be the advantages of hiring people from minority religious affiliations and backgrounds?
  2. What might be potential challenges?
  3. Why do you think more issues surrounding religion in the workplace are cropping up now?

From Harvard Business Review



Leave a Reply