Monday, January 26, 2015

Should it matter if your employee thinks hand scanners are tools of Satan?

If you’re a long time reader of my blog, you might recall a story I shared a few years ago about a co-worker at one of my high-school jobs, who held some interesting opinions about Lee Iacocca, Satan, and the end of the world. At the time, I made a point about taking the path of least resistance with reasonable accommodations.

Apparently, Consol Energy is not a blog subscriber.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette brings us the story of Beverly Butcher Jr., an employee at its Robinson Run, West Virginia, mine, and an Evangelical Christian, who refused to use the company’s hand scanner to clock in an clock out, because he believed it would imprint him with the “mark of the beast.” Instead of working with Butcher, or providing him an alternative way to track his time, the company mandated his use of the hand scanner. He quit, the EEOC sued on his behalf, and, last week, a federal jury ruled in his favor, awarding him $150,000 in compensatory damages on his religious discrimination claim. Later this year the court will rule on back pay, front pay, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees.

Whether or not an employee is entitled to a religious accommodation is not dependent upon whether or not you happen to agree with the employee’s religious beliefs. Instead, it hinges solely on whether the beliefs are sincerely held, and, if so, whether you can provide the accommodation without it imposing an undue hardship. While this employer could make a credible undue-hardship argument based on the need for accurate time tracking, and uniformity among employees, it it worth it. Denying the requested accommodation—not using the hand scanner and tracking time in and time out with a different tool—is not worth the headache and associated costs of a federal lawsuit (verdict included).

Requests for accommodations (whether for religious or disability purposes) are not the demarcation on a battleground. Instead, they are a call for a middle ground. Employers need to recognize this truth, and starting wars that simply are not worth fighting.