Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The devil went down to the EEOC… A story on religious accommodation

Halloween is almost upon us, which mean that it’s only appropriate to discuss one of the EEOC’s last actions before the government shutdown—the filing of a lawsuit against two Pennsylvania energy companies for failing to accommodate an employee’s religiously based fear of using the newly installed time and attendance biometric hand scanners. From the EEOC’s press release:

Butcher repeatedly told mining officials that submitting to a biometric hand scanner violated his sincerely held religious beliefs as an Evangelical Christian. He also wrote the mining superintendent and human resources manager a letter explaining the relationship between hand-scanning technology and the Mark of the Beast and antichrist discussed in the Book of Revelation of the New Testament and requesting an exemption from the hand scanning based on his religious beliefs.

The mining companies refused to consider alternate means of tracking Butcher’s time and attendance, such as allowing him to submit manual time records as he had done previously or reporting to his supervisor, even though the mining company had made similar exceptions to the hand scanning for two employees with missing fingers. The EEOC charges that Butcher was forced to retire because the companies refused to provide an accommodation to his religious beliefs.  

According to the EEOC lawyer litigating this case, “In religious accommodation cases, the standard is not whether company officials agree with or share the employee’s religious beliefs. Instead, the focus is on whether the employer can provide an accommodation without incurring an undue hardship.”

Before you dismiss an employee’s request for a religious accommodation as silly or outrageous, stop, think, and decide whether the expense or difficultly in making the accommodating exceeds the cost and aggravation of defending a possible discrimination lawsuit. The answer to that equation, should, more often than not, guide your decision.

For more on this issue, I recommend pages 229 – 230 of my latest book, The Employer Bill of Rights, where I discuss a former co-worker of mine who believed that Lee Iacocca saved Chrysler by making a pact with the devil, and how the company for which we worked accommodated his beliefs (true story).