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Equality and diversity: Religion and belief

The rights of religious believers to employment free of unfair discrimination have been guaranteed by law since 2003. But it takes longer to change attitudes than law in a period when religious conflict has spilled over into violence and war. Adherents of all religions and none can potentially face prejudice, but the 2,869,000 Muslims in Britain, that’s 4.6% of the British population, are clearly affected.

In the world of work some prominent employers have been actively trying to rid themselves of unfair practices, including religious discrimination. In the public sector, most organisations can be expected to make efforts to implement the law. In the private sector many large companies have declared a commitment to diversity and equal opportunities. Most smaller organisations will also want to fully carry out their legal responsibilities, but some will be held back by lack of knowledge.

What are my legal rights?

Legislation outlaws both direct discrimination, such as dismissing someone because of their religion, and indirect discrimination - for example, covering corporate policies that would put a believer of a particular faith at a disadvantage. Harassment and victimisation are also banned. Atheists and people with particular philosophical beliefs are protected in the same way as religious believers.

To ensure fairness to all beliefs, employers are required to adopt appropriate practices for:

  • dress code;
  • breaks (some people need to pray several times a day);
  • leave and religious holidays and fasts;
  • social interaction (some people may need to avoid eye contact or handshakes).

Cases of discrimination within the recruitment process are hard to uncover unless they are particularly blatant. Complaints through the official channels are more likely to be successful where they concern an organisation’s actions after someone has been taken on to their payroll.

How can I make my application successful?

Atheists and people with particular philosophical beliefs are protected in the same way as religious believers.

Whatever your beliefs you should feel free to apply for any job for which you are qualified. Whether or not you are concerned about possible discrimination, it is essential to produce the best possible application selling your ability to carry out the specific vacant post.

When choosing organisations to apply to, you may want to pay particular attention to employers who are committed to diversity in their workforce. Some of these employers even provide details on their website or in corporate literature of how they accommodate people’s religious practices. However, many sectors and localities have too few diversity-friendly organisations to cater for all job-seekers, so you will probably have to apply also to others who are less up-front in their commitment to fairness.

Should I disclose my religious beliefs?

You do not have to mention your religious beliefs during the application process. Often the best policy is to leave discussion of any practicalities associated with your religion until after you have got a job. Up until then, the focus should be on your suitability for the job.

There should be no questions about religion in application forms, though a separate equal opportunities monitoring form may cover beliefs. This will be kept separate from the rest of your application. Sometimes your religion may be relevant to application form questions seeking examples of when you have demonstrated certain skills or competencies. For example, your example might concern a project or activity you were involved in as a volunteer for a religious organisation. You need to use the best examples you can think of, so you should not hold back from using ones related to your religion.

When choosing organisations to apply to, you may want to pay particular attention to employers who are committed to diversity in their workforce.

If you are called to interview, there is a chance that your religious requirements at work might be discussed  - although it would be unlawful for the outcome to be influenced by something like the candidate’s need to take prayer breaks. Some employers may ask for information because they are sympathetic but ignorant of religions other than their own.

Candidates can best deal with inquiries about religious practices if they have done a little research about how other companies accommodate employees’ needs. But there is a risk that if the discussion is lengthy, the interviewers will remember more about your religious practices than how well you fit the vacancy.

Once you have been appointed, you may feel freer to discuss religious requirements, such as how to fit fasting into your work schedule. At an appropriate time, perhaps after you have become more familiar with the company culture, you may also want to talk to your colleagues about your beliefs. Feeling able to express your religion as an employee is likely to make you a better and more fulfilled employees. It is also your legal right.


Further information

Written by Editor, Graduate Prospects
September 2011

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