April 2014 HR Brain Teaser

Brain Teaser Courtesy of EPLI Pro™

The company provides employees with a refrigerator to use in the lunch room.  Except for the occasional complaint (e.g. “My leftover meatloaf is missing!”) there hasn’t been any significant issue – until now.

A new employee has gone to HR and requested that management prohibit employees from storing non-kosher meats in the lunch room refrigerator. The employee explains his religious beliefs forbid him from storing his food with non-kosher foods. Bells and whistles go off: religious accommodations are required. HR assures the employee the company will make the change immediately. HR prepares a sign, “NO MEAT ALLOWED IN REFRIGERATOR – effective immediately.”

Within minutes, HR’s in-box is full of emails from employees complaining about the new policy.

What, if anything, do you think this HR department should have done differently?

A.  Nothing.

B.  Speak with the new employee about his religious beliefs to determine if there’s a solution that will satisfy him and other employees.

C.  There’s no reason to talk to the new employee any further. Take the sign off the refrigerator and buy him a small refrigerator where he can store his food.

D.  Send a reply to the complaining employees and explain that they should take up their issues with the new employee. After all, it was his request.

Answer:   The best answer is B     Employers with 15 or more employees are required under federal law to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs. The employee threshold is lower in many states (e.g. California). The law, however, doesn’t require that the employer blindly implement the employee’s first request. As with disability accommodations, the employer must talk to the employee to determine the specific needs of the employee and how the employer can accommodate those needs.

Here, the employer should have spoken with the employee to get more information on his belief. You can’t discuss an accommodation without understanding the employee’s needs. Don’t judge the beliefs and needs. Perhaps in the situation above, the employee would have been able to clarify what he means by non-kosher meat. At a minimum, the employer should have explored other options before immediately putting the sign on the refrigerator.

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