“We were stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Supervisor Margie Brunton. “If we had accommodated Karla’s request, we might have gotten hit with a gender-bias lawsuit.”
“It was a sticky wicket,” said HR Manager Alan Frankel. “And it just got a little stickier. Karla is suing us for religious discrimination.”
“Oh, brother,” said Margie. “What a mess. It all started when Karla was assigned to work with a staffer who was born a woman but identifies as a man. The coworker had asked everyone to refer to him using male pronouns, but Karla refused to do so.”
“Why wouldn’t Karla use her coworker’s preferred pronouns?” asked Alan.
“Karla thought using male pronouns would violate her beliefs as a devout Christian because she would be lying,” said Margie.
“So why did we fire Karla?” asked Alan.
“When the coworker complained about Karla’s refusal to use male pronouns,” said Margie, “we asked Karla to abide by his wishes, but she denied our request, then sought a religious accommodation. We fired her on the spot.”
“Karla says we never engaged in the interactive process to find a way to accommodate her religious beliefs,” said Alan. “She points out that we never even considered options such as changing her work duties or moving her to another location.”
“None of those options were realistic,” said Margie. “Plus, if Karla had been allowed to keep using female pronouns, her coworker might have sued us for gender bias. Let’s fight this lawsuit.”
Did the company win?
No. The company lost. The court said the employer might have interfered with the woman’s religious beliefs when it failed to consider potential accommodations for her religion and then terminated her for refusing to use male pronouns when addressing a coworker who was born female.
Most significant, said the judge, was the company’s refusal to participate in the interactive process. As soon as the woman asked for a religious accommodation, the employer was obligated to consider ways to allow her to abide by her sincerely held beliefs. Instead, she was terminated on the spot.
What it means: Participate in the interactive process
Should one of your staffers refuse to do something because of a religious belief, remember that you have a legal obligation to engage in the interactive process in order to identify potential accommodations.
In this case, the employer neglected to even consider possible accommodations, then dismissed the woman. That was a costly mistake.
Better option: Acknowledge the staffer’s request for a religious accommodation and then start the process of identifying potential work-related accommodations. Keep in mind that you aren’t required to agree to a religious-accommodation request – if you can prove that doing so would present an undue hardship – but you are obligated to engage in the interactive process.
Based on Haskins v. Bio Blood Components.
(From the March 17, 2023, issue of HR Manager’s Legal Alert for Supervisors. To start your no-obligation trial subscription to the publication right now, please click here.)