Understanding and Preventing Religious Discrimination in the Workplace



Understanding and Preventing Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

In a culturally diverse country like the UK, a wide array of religions and belief systems coexist. Consequently, it's imperative for employers to be vigilant about avoiding discrimination in the workplace based on an individual's religious or philosophical convictions.

Deciphering Religious Discrimination

Religious discrimination is a broad term encompassing unfavorable treatment of an individual or a group due to their religious or belief-related affiliations.

This extends to well-established faiths like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Islam, as well as more obscure belief systems such as Scientology, Rastafarianism, and Paganism.

The concept of 'belief' transcends traditional religions, including any religious or philosophical convictions. This could encompass atheism, agnosticism, humanism, belief in man-made climate change, spiritualism, or ethical veganism.

Discrimination against someone for being an atheist, for instance, is unlawful, provided it's a sincerely held belief that significantly influences their life or work.

The law is unequivocal in forbidding preferential treatment based on religion or belief.

The Equality Act 2010 safeguards religion and philosophical belief as protected characteristics, prohibiting unfair treatment related to these characteristics. This applies to both the presence or absence of a specific religion or belief.

Additionally, protection against discrimination extends to scenarios where someone is perceived to belong to a particular religion or is assumed to hold specific religious or philosophical beliefs, whether or not these assumptions are accurate.

This is known as perceptive discrimination. Likewise, discrimination can occur if someone is associated with an individual of a certain religion or belief, whether a friend or a relative, which is termed associative discrimination.

Whether one is applying for a job or is already employed, the law prohibits discrimination across all aspects of employment, including recruitment, termination, compensation, benefits, promotions, transfers, and training.

Types of Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

The Equality Act 2010 delineates four primary forms of religious discrimination in the workplace:

Direct Discrimination:

Occurs when a person receives less favorable treatment at work due to their religion or philosophical beliefs. Both perceptive and associative discrimination fall under direct discrimination.

Indirect Discrimination:

Arises when an employer enforces policies, procedures, or work methods that apply universally but disproportionately disadvantage individuals of a specific religion or belief.


Entails subjecting an individual to unwanted conduct related to their religion or belief, leading to violations of dignity or creating a hostile work environment.


Occurs when an individual is treated unfairly because they've raised a complaint or taken legal action against religious discrimination or harassment, or supported someone else's complaint.

Illustrative Examples of Religious Discrimination at Work

Direct discrimination can manifest as:

  • Refusing to hire someone due to assumptions about their Muslim faith.

  • Paying Jewish employees less or denying them certain benefits.

  • Denying a Rastafarian an outward-facing role.

  • Rejecting a flexible work request because of an employee's non-Christian beliefs.

  • Selecting an employee for redundancy because they associate with Sikhs.

  • Disciplining or firing someone for dating a Scientologist.

Indirect discrimination may involve:

  • Enforcing dress codes that prohibit religious attire like hijabs or turbans.

  • Prohibiting the wearing of sacred religious symbols, such as Sikh karas or Christian crucifixes.

  • Requiring work on religious days, like Muslims during Ramadan or Jews on Saturdays.

Harassment refers to bullying behavior by an employer or coworkers based on religion, while victimization encompasses various negative consequences an individual may face for reporting discrimination or supporting a complaint.

Employer Responsibilities

All employers, irrespective of their personal beliefs, are obligated to prevent direct or indirect discrimination in the workplace, whether actual or perceived, regarding religion or belief.

This responsibility spans from recruitment through employment and beyond, including the provision of references.

Employers must also ensure a safe, harassment-free working environment.

This entails taking reasonable measures to prevent unlawful conduct at work, including harassment by third parties like customers or clients.

However, there are circumstances when treating someone differently due to their religion or belief may be lawful, such as in cases of genuine occupational requirements.

For instance, a Jewish school or Catholic care home may require employees to adhere to specific faith-related practices.

Moreover, an employer might justify a particular policy or practice if it proportionally serves a legitimate aim.

For example, requiring employees to wear a hair-net for hygiene purposes may be acceptable, even if it involves removing a turban. However, if less discriminatory alternatives are available, the requirement may still be unlawful.

Employee Rights and Protections

Employees have the right to a discrimination-free workplace, regardless of their religion, belief, or lack thereof.

They can raise grievances or file claims with employment tribunals if treated unfairly due to their faith.

No length-of-service requirement exists for bringing a religious discrimination claim, and employees can claim automatic unfair dismissal if dismissed due to their religion or belief.

However, to qualify for protection, an employee must genuinely subscribe to the particular religion or belief in question, and their expression of it must be integral to that belief. The law protects organized religions and less mainstream beliefs.

Establishing protection for a philosophical belief is more challenging. It must be genuinely held, substantially affect human life, attain a certain level of seriousness and coherence, and respect democratic values.

Preventing Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

To foster inclusivity and prevent religious discrimination:

  1. Implement a robust equality and diversity policy, explicitly addressing religious discrimination.

  2. Ensure easy access to the policy and conduct regular equality and diversity training for employees.

  3. Create a safe reporting mechanism for discrimination or harassment.

  4. Accommodate faith requirements, such as dress codes and flexible working for religious observance.

  5. Promote inclusivity by celebrating religious diversity and educating employees about different faiths.

  6. Review employment policies and practices to ensure fairness and inclusivity.

By genuinely embracing diversity, employers can build inclusive workplaces where everyone can thrive.

Seek Professional Guidance

For comprehensive assistance in managing your workforce and promoting equality and diversity, reach out to DavidsonMorris. Our team of employment lawyers and HR consultants is committed to ensuring legal compliance and nurturing inclusive workplace cultures.

How to prevent Religious discrimination in the workplace:

  • Have a strict anti-discriminatory policy in place.

  • Fill your staff with people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds.

  • Educate and train your staff about respecting all kinds of religions and beliefs.

  • Implement YourSafeHub in your organization for reporting purposes. It’s a secure and anonymous communication channel that protects your employees with the power of anonymity.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What are some examples of religious discrimination?

  • Common examples include refusing to hire individuals due to their perceived religious affiliation or enforcing schedules that impede religious observance.

2. What is it called when you discriminate based on religion?

  • Discrimination based on religion can be direct, indirect, or involve harassment on religious grounds.

3. What are the causes and effects of religious discrimination?

  • The causes can range from bias and ignorance to intolerance. Effects include poor employee engagement, increased absenteeism, loss of valuable staff, and damage to the employer's reputation.


Understanding and addressing religious discrimination in the workplace is crucial in today's diverse society. Employers must be vigilant in promoting equality and preventing discrimination based on religion or belief.

The Equality Act 2010 provides a comprehensive framework for protection against religious discrimination, encompassing direct and indirect discrimination, harassment, and victimization.

Employers have a legal and moral obligation to create inclusive environments where every employee, regardless of their religious or philosophical convictions, feels respected and valued.

This includes adopting clear equality and diversity policies, providing training, and establishing reporting mechanisms to address discrimination promptly.

Employees also have rights to a discrimination-free workplace and can seek redress through grievance procedures or employment tribunals if they experience discrimination due to their religion or belief.

Ultimately, by embracing diversity and actively working to prevent religious discrimination, employers not only fulfill their legal obligations but also foster workplaces where all individuals can thrive, contributing to a more harmonious and productive work environment for everyone.


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