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Workplaces Taking Leaps of Faith

Diversity: Employers increasingly are recognizing religious rights in on-job dress codes and allowing non-Christian workers time off on holy days.


Elizabeth Castillon was suspended from her job as a customer service representative at an Office Depot Inc. store in Santa Clara in February because, her managers told her, she had violated the company's dress code.

What had Castillon done to merit what the office supply store managers called "administrative leave"? She refused to remove her hijab, a head scarf worn by many Muslim women because of their religious beliefs.

After a local chapter of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) intervened, Office Depot reinstated Castillon, offered her back pay and told her she could wear her hijab at work.

Castillon is happy with how the situation was resolved and says Office Depot managers were guilty only of misunderstanding company policy and the scarf's significance, not intentional discrimination.

"They said they thought [the hijab] was out of dress code, but that they would check with corporate," said Castillon, 22, who was out of work for two weeks. "If they'd been a little smarter, maybe they wouldn't have told me to go home so quickly and gotten on the phone with corporate right away."

Castillon represents a new wrinkle in the American workplace's changing fabric. As their customers and workers become more ethnically and racially diverse, companies are encountering differences among their workers more often--particularly in matters of faith.

Advocacy groups, employment-law experts and diversity consultants say most companies are mindful of federal law prohibiting job discrimination based on religion--but that many do not know the law also requires employers to accommodate employees' religious practices unless doing so would cause undue hardship.

"The second prong of this law is not well known, especially among smaller employers," said Martin List, a partner with Duvin, Cahn & Hutton, a Cleveland law firm that specializes in labor relations and employment law. "It's intuitive to know you can't discriminate on the basis of religion. It's not intuitive to know you have to accommodate someone's religious practices."

Besides urging exceptions to corporate dress codes for religious garb, many diversity consultants and human-resource managers are encouraging companies to adopt such practices as flexible work schedules for employees who would like to take time off for prayer, and rotating holidays so non-Christian workers can celebrate a holiday other than Christmas.

Race and sex discrimination cases far outnumber cases alleging religious discrimination, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says allegations of religious discrimination have been rising. More than 1,560 cases were reported last year, up from 1,192 cases in 1991.

CAIR has helped resolve a number of cases similar to Castillon's, involving such major companies as J.C. Penney Co. and McDonald's Corp.

Mohamed Nimer, director of CAIR's research center, said a rise in complaints from Muslims in the past year led the organization to publish a 16-page guide for employers on Islamic dress, diet, prayer requirements and other tenets. Several Fortune 500 companies have called to ask about the booklet, he said.

"We noticed a tremendous lack of knowledge on the part of employers as to what legitimate practices are," Nimer said. "The booklet is not designed to preach; it's designed to be practical and give tips on how to accommodate the needs of Muslim workers."

CAIR officials say that incidents such as the one at Office Depot usually reflect ignorance of the law or corporate policy, generally on the part of lower-level or local managers.

According to CAIR, when a Muslim telephone operator at a Philadelphia Marriott hotel asked permission to wear her hijab with her uniform, managers initially resisted until they checked with company officials and found there were exceptions to the rules.

"In the diverse workplace that Marriott has, there are specific and unique cases that come up that aren't everyday cases. They aren't something you can go to an operating manual and find out," said Geary Campbell, a spokesman for Marriott International Inc. "To my knowledge, this hotel hadn't encountered something like this previously, and they found out there were exceptions based on religious beliefs."

However, retailers, hotel companies and other service businesses, as well as companies that focus on consumer products, traditionally have been more creative and aggressive in handling diversity issues because of the impact on business, said Patricia Digh, senior diversity consultant for the Society for Human Resource Management, an Alexandria, Va.-based trade association with more than 77,000 members.

Digh also noted that when employers do not view race, gender, age, physical ability and other characteristics as issues to address, they are less likely to focus on "less visible" matters such as religion and sexual orientation. Clearly, experts say, the more diverse the workplace, the more accommodation is made for religious belief.

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