With such a diverse population in the UK comes a broad range of different religions and belief systems. Consequently, by law employers must be careful not to discriminate against someone at work because of the religious or philosophical beliefs that a person may hold.
The following guide for employers examines the meaning of religious discrimination in the context of the workplace, including the employer’s obligations and the employee’s rights, providing common examples of religious discrimination scenarios. We also look at ways in which the employer can effectively reduce this type of discrimination from happening among its workforce.
What is religious discrimination?
Religious discrimination broadly refers to the unfavourable treatment of a person or group of people for reasons related to their religion or belief. This includes the most commonly recognised faiths with well-understood cultures, such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Islam, or specific denominations within these religions. Religion also includes lesser-known religions or sects, such as Scientology, Rastafarianism and Paganism.
‘Belief’ is not just limited to religious beliefs. It can include any religious or philosophical belief. A belief which isn’t a religious belief may still be a philosophical belief, such as atheism, agnosticism, humanism, the belief in man-made climate change, spiritualism and ethical veganism. Gender critical beliefs are also protected following the tribunal ruling in 2022. A person cannot be discriminated against, for example, for being an atheist, provided this is a sincerely held belief that affects the way they live or work.
It is against the law to treat a person less favourably than someone else at work because of their religion or belief. This is because religion, or religious and philosophical belief, are protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 which prohibits unfair treatment because someone possesses a particular characteristic. This includes a lack of a particular religion or belief, irrespective of any other religion or belief a person may or may not have.
Discrimination by association and perception
The protection against discrimination in the workplace also extends to cases where someone is perceived to be of a certain religion, or thought to hold a certain religious or philosophical belief, whether or not this is actually true. This is known as perceptive discrimination. Equally, a person can be discriminated against if they’re associated with someone, such as a friend or relative, of a particular religion or belief. This is known as associative discrimination.
A person will be protected from religious discrimination whether they are applying for a job or already in employment. The law prohibits discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, benefits, promotions, transfers and training.
Types of religious discrimination in the workplace
Under the 2010 Act there are four different types of discrimination that can occur in the workplace because of religion or belief, or lack of religion or belief:
Direct discrimination: where a person is treated less favourably than someone else at work because of the religion they belong to, or the religious or philosophical beliefs they hold. Both perceptive and associative discrimination are forms of direct discrimination.
Indirect discrimination: where an employer applies a particular policy, procedure or way of working which applies equally to everyone but unfairly disadvantages those of a certain religion, or with a particular religious or philosophical belief.
Harassment: where a person is subjected to unwanted conduct related to their religion or belief that has either the purpose or effect of violating their dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive working environment for them.
Victimisation: where a person is treated unfairly because they’ve made a complaint or taken legal action about religious discrimination or harassment, or supported a complaint or claim made by someone else, for example, by acting as a witness. This also applies if it is thought that someone has made or supported a discrimination complaint, even if untrue.
Examples of religious discrimination at work
Given that the law recognises various different forms of religious and belief discrimination, there are a number of ways in which an employee or job applicant can be discriminated against in the workplace. Below we set out common examples of religious discrimination by way of direct and indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation.
Direct discrimination in the workplace can include:
- not hiring someone because they’re thought to be Muslim
- paying someone less or refusing certain employee benefits because they’re Jewish
- refusing someone a customer-facing role because they’re Rastafarian
- refusing someone a flexible working request because they’re not Christian
- selecting someone for redundancy because they spend time socialising with Sikhs
- disciplining or dismissing someone because they’re dating a Scientologist.
Indirect discrimination in the workplace can include:
- requiring a dress code that excludes people who wear items of clothing as part of their faith, such as Muslim women wearing hijabs or Sikh men wearing turbans
- banning the wearing of sacred religious items, such as the kara symbolic bracelet worn by Sikhs or the crucifix necklace worn by Christians
- requiring people to work on religious days, such as Muslims over Ramadan, people of the Jewish faith on a Saturday or Christians on a Sunday.
Harassment in the workplace essentially refers to any form of bullying behaviour by the employer or other employees because of someone’s religion or belief, whilst victimisation can include anything from being labelled a trouble-maker to being denied opportunities or being disciplined or dismissed, for complaining about unfair treatment or unlawful conduct.
For instance, a Jehovah’s witness could be teased relentlessly by co-workers over reading the bible during breaks and complain to their line manager. If the employee’s line manager then refuses the employee a well-earned promotion because they’re not a ‘team player’, this would potentially provide two separate but related examples of religious discrimination.
All employers, regardless of their own beliefs, must ensure that they do not directly or indirectly discriminate against someone at work because of that person’s actual or perceived religion or belief, lack of religion or belief, or association with anyone of a particular religion or belief. This obligation runs right from the start of the recruitment process, throughout the course of an individual’s employment and even beyond, such as when writing references.
The employer must also ensure the provision of a safe and inclusive working environment free from harassment and victimisation. This means taking reasonable steps to prevent this type of unlawful conduct from taking place at work, including harassment by third parties, such as customers or clients, even though they are not within the direct control of the employer.
However, there are some circumstances when someone being treated differently due to their religion or belief may be lawful under the 2010 Act. This could include a genuine occupational requirement where the nature or context of the work demands it. For example, a Jewish school or Catholic care home may require employees to practise or be sympathetic to those faiths.
An employer may also be able to objectively justify a particular provision, criterion or practice, provided this is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. For example, it might not count as unlawful discrimination if employees are required to wear a hair-net to meet food hygiene standards, even if this means removing a turban. However, a particular requirement or prohibition, even if legitimate, may still be unlawful if less discriminatory means can be used. For example, a ban on beards that would impact Sikh and Muslim workers may not be justified where health and safety obligations can be fulfilled by providing a beard mask.
Employee rights & protections
All employees have the right to not be discriminated against due to their religion or belief, or lack of religion or belief. This means that employees who are treated unfairly because of the religion they belong to, or the beliefs that they hold, will have the right to raise a grievance with their employer or even make a claim to an employment tribunal.
There is no length of service requirement to bring a religious discrimination claim. If an employee is dismissed because of their religion or belief, they may also claim automatically unfair dismissal for which there is again no continuous service requirement.
However, to qualify for protection against religious discrimination, the employee must demonstrate that they actually subscribe to the particular religion or belief in question. The expression of the religious belief must also be integral to the religion or belief held, although this can easily vary from person to person within the same faith or of the same belief.
In legal terms, religion means any religion that has a clear structure and belief system. This covers all of the traditional, organised religions practised in the UK, although a religion need not be mainstream or well-known for statutory protection to arise.
A philosophical belief can often be more difficult to establish to enable the protections in law. A belief need not include faith or worship of a God, but it must affect how someone lives their life or perceives the world. To be protected under the Act, a philosophical belief must:
- be genuinely held and not just be an opinion or viewpoint
- be a belief as to a weighty and substantial part of human life and behaviour
- attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance
- be worthy of respect in a democratic society, and not be incompatible with human dignity or affect the fundamental rights of others.
How can employers reduce the risk of religious discrimination?
Many organisations will already have a written policy on equality and diversity in place, yet religious discrimination remains prevalent in UK workplaces. To be genuinely inclusive, employers need to fully understand and be sensitive to an employees’ religious and philosophical beliefs, or absence of such beliefs. Whether they express their views openly or not, many employees might hold profound beliefs that affect the way they live and work.
It’s also important that employees themselves are aware of the need to respect each other’s belief systems to prevent any form of discrimination or harassment in the workplace.
By taking a number of proactive steps, employers can help to reduce the incidence of religious discrimination at work. These should include:
- Implementing an adequate equality and diversity policy. Even where a written policy exists, there may be little reference to religion and belief. This may need to be reviewed, making it clear that the organisation has a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination and harassment on grounds of religion and belief, including specific examples of religious discrimination.
- Ensuring your equality and diversity policy is made easily accessible to all. If a new or amended policy is introduced, this should be carefully communicated to employees. Staff should also receive regular equality and diversity training to ensure they fully understand their personal responsibility to treat colleagues with dignity and respect.
- Ensuring staff are aware of how to report instances of discrimination or harassment on the basis of religion or belief, and feel easily able to do so without fear of reprisals. Incidents of discrimination often go unchecked because staff feel unable to speak out. All complaints of religious discrimination must be taken seriously, and dealt with swiftly and sensitively.
- Being sensitive to employees’ needs in terms of any faith requirements, such as dress codes, dietary requirements or making flexible working provision for religious observance. Also be sensitive to when interviews, meetings or other work commitments take place, having regard to Sabbath days and religious festivals.
- Fostering a culture of inclusivity at work, where the organisation actively celebrates and encourages differences. This could include, for example, introducing a calendar of religious holidays to support religious diversity at work, providing information to help staff understand the significance of certain festivals celebrated by colleagues of different faiths.
- Reviewing all employment policies and procedures to ensure fairness and inclusivity. Your employment practices should not discriminate against employees or job applicants on the basis of religion or belief, or any absence of religion or belief.
- By being genuinely inclusive, this will enable employers to recruit and retain the best people for their organisation, creating a rich and diverse environment in which everyone can thrive.
Religious discrimination FAQs
What are some examples of religious discrimination?
Common examples of religious discrimination can include refusing to hire someone wearing a headscarf because they’re thought to be Muslim, or requiring a shift pattern that excludes people who need to practice religious observance on their Sabbath day.
What is it called when you discriminate based on religion?
Discriminating on the basis of religion can come in many different forms. In legal terms, this can be described as either direct or indirect religious discrimination, as well as harassment on the grounds of religion or belief.
What are the causes of religious discrimination?
There are various causes of religious discrimination in the workplace. Often, however, employers inadvertently discriminate against jobs applicants or employees because they haven’t fully considered how a particular policy or practice will affect those of different faiths.
What are the effects of religious discrimination?
The effects of religious discrimination can be far-reaching, for both the individual discriminated against and the business. It can lead to poor employee engagement, increased absenteeism, the loss of a value member of staff and a damaged employer brand.
The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.