Increasingly, multicultural workplaces can also mean increased disputes over the often fraught issue of where, or if, religion fits into the workplace – and it is HR practitioners who are in the firing line.
The issue, once again, hit the news in dramatic fashion this week with the story of an Auckland casino worker threatened with dismissal for carrying a pocket bible with her when she works.
In this case, the woman, who has over 10 years’ service under her belt, was asked to attend a disciplinary meeting because her breach of departmental policies was considered “serious misconduct”.
She was told the possible outcome of the upcoming meeting was “a final written warning”and that any further breach would result in her instant dismissal.
Mike Treen, who is the national director of the woman’s union Unite, said he did not know when carrying a bible in your pocket had become unlawful in New Zealand workplaces.
“We do not believe that ordering staff not to carry a pocket bible is a lawful or reasonable instruction in a workplace in the 21st century,” he added.
It might be useful for HR practitioners, who might need to manage similar situations, to know that Treen is, strictly speaking, correct.
The rights of New Zealanders to freedom of religion and opinion, as well as to protection against discrimination for their beliefs, are enshrined in both the Bill of Rights Act and the Human Rights Act.
However, according to the Human Rights Commission, the relevant law does not prescribe employers’ and employees’ mutual rights and obligations in specific areas – like prayer times, dress codes and public religious displays – and that tends to create conflict.
The Commission, which published guidelines on the issue earlier this year, has said religious issues should be managed sensitively and, where possible, employers should try to accommodate reasonable religious requests.
It recommends that:
Employers should formulate specific workplace policies on matters like prayer times or dress codes and ensure staff are aware of, and understand them.
Religious practices should be considered acceptable as long as they are discreet, and do not interfere with any other workplace practices or with the health and safety of other employees.
Respect for others should be considered essential and, therefore, employees who want to practice aspects of their religion at work should recognise this and be aware that their actions may offend others.