Religion, Belief and HR (Part II)

Religion in the UK Workplace

In response to the legislation mentioned in part I and the desire to create better cohesion among staff, employers and HR personnel need to understand the religious make-up of their staff, gain insight into the religious doctrine and appreciate the requirements of each religion. This will then equip them to analyse their HR policies and practices which may discriminate against or negatively impact their employees.

It would be fair to say that many of the problems faced in the workplace around the issue of religion stem from a lack of knowledge and information about what other faiths do and believe. In today's multicultural UK it is important to be aware of and appreciate the differences between Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Rastafarians, Bahais and others. It is imperative that this process starts at the top, i.e. HR personnel and managers, and works its way down.

By way of introducing areas pertaining to religion which HR personnel and employers need to gain an understanding of, the following four examples will be considered:

Religious Dress

Many religions carry dress codes or guidelines on appearance and presentation.

Khalsa Sikhs wear five religious symbols known as the five K's. Two are not visible, but the 'Kara' (a steel bangle worn on the wrist) and the 'Kesh' (uncut hair usually underneath a turban) are worn on the outside. The 'Kirpan' (a decorative sword) does not necessarily have to be visible.

Muslim women are required to cover their bodies as a sign of modesty. Interpretations of the Quran differ so you may see Muslim women wearing just a head covering whereas others may only show their eyes. Muslim men on the whole do not have specific restrictions on their dress although they are strongly encouraged to wear a beard. Again, interpretations as to what constitutes a beard vary.


Hindus wear the 'Tilaka' which is a mark on the forehead. The colour varies according to which sect is followed.

Rastafarians wear their hair in dreadlocks which represent the Lion of Judah.

Jews wear a 'Kippah' (skull cap) out of respect for God.

HR personnel may want to consider how such examples may impact health and safety regulations, dress codes or staff uniforms.

Religious Observance

Many religions have requirements of their followers in terms of practices.

Muslims must pray five times a day. This is done facing Mecca in Saudi Arabia and performing a series of recitations in tandem with bowing and prostration. Prayer times vary according to the time of the year as they are calculated on the movements of the sun. Muslim men must also attend the Friday prayer at a mosque.

Sabbath, the Jewish holy day, starts at sunset on Friday and continues till sunset on Saturday. During this period practising Jews will do nothing that may be seen as work.

Following a cremation in the Hindu religion, relatives of the deceased observe a 13 day period of mourning at home. Male relatives may be required to carry the ashes to the Ganges, India.

HR personnel may see these examples impact on working hours, lunch/break times, working time flexibility, facilities and bereavement policies.

Religious Holidays

HR staff should always be aware of the religious leave requirements of their staff.

Muslims may require leave for Eid ul-Fitr at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan or at Eid ul-Adha at the end of the Hajj (pilgrimage). Shia Muslims may request leave for Ashura, a day of mourning for a martyred Muslim leader.

Hindus and Sikhs have many holy days and festivals, most notably Diwali.

Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) are two significant Jewish holy days.

Most HR personnel will have a strong understanding of the company leave policy but it is best to be aware of situations that may require understanding and flexibility.

Social Interaction

Religious observance can introduce a few problems in relation to social interaction.

Food and Drink:

Muslims and Sikhs can not and do not drink alcohol.

Jews and Muslims do not eat pork. Meat must be Kosher for Jews and Halal for Muslims, both referring to the method by which the animal is slaughtered. Muslims in the absence of Halal meat can eat Kosher.

Hindus do not eat beef as the cow is held sacred due to the fact it is held dear by Lord Krishna. In addition many Hindus do not eat meat.

Male - Female Interaction:

Although not so commonly practised by the younger generation of British Muslims, rules suggest women and men should not openly mix. This is especially true when two members of the opposite sex are left alone. For example, Muslim men and women may feel very uncomfortable working alone with a colleague of the opposite sex.

The caste system:

One feature of Indian/Hindu society that can sometimes manifest in the British workplace is the caste system. This system ranks society according to occupation. The four main categories are Brahimis (priests), Kshatriyas (warrior/ruling class), Vaishyas (merchants/artisans) and Shudras (labourers/servants). There are also the outcasts or 'untouchables' who are considered too lowly for inclusion. There are examples in the UK whereby members of one class refused to work under the supervision of a member of an inferior class.

HR personnel will need to consider all the above examples when considering catering arrangements, team building and social functions such a Christmas parties.

Above we have presented only a few examples of how religion and religious observance can impact the HR department of a company. It is key that HR personnel, especially those with a highly diverse workforce, take positive and progressive steps to ensure the requirements of religious staff are considered and accommodated where possible.

In Religion, Belief and HR (Part III) we discuss the conclusions of this article and offer some advice to HR personnel on key factors that should be borne in mind when approaching the topic of religion and HR.