The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently updated employees’ guide to southern manners. Don’t worry, employees should still say “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am.” But you know the old saying that you should never discuss politics or religion at work? Well employees better forget that saying ever existed. Not only should employees discuss their religion at work, they should make their religious beliefs known to management when religious accommodations are necessary. Yes. You read that right. Employees should tell their bosses about their specific religious beliefs to establish their inclusion in a protected class.
In Nobach v. Woodland Village Nursing Center, Inc., et al., the Fifth Circuit ruled that if a company’s decision makers involved in an employee’s termination are unaware of the employee’s religious beliefs, then the company cannot be liable for religious discrimination. Nobach, a certified nurse’s aide at Woodland Village Nursing Center, was terminated for refusing to pray the rosary with a patient. Nobach refused because she was a former Jehovah’s Witness and still held many of the same beliefs.
Unfortunately, Nobach made a big mistake. She didn’t discuss her religious beliefs with her boss. I know most people are thinking, “well of course she didn’t!” But the Court held that because the managers involved in her termination were not made aware of her religious beliefs until after her termination, they could not have discriminated against her based on those beliefs. So the Fifth Circuit overturned her sizeable monetary award granted by a jury.
Employers, I’m not suggesting that you go out on a “witch hunt” and attempt to identify the religious beliefs of all of your employees. I’m suggesting quite the opposite. While most employers know not to ask about these sensitive issues in an interview, if a current employee does not tell you about their religious beliefs or need for a religious accommodation, DON’T ASK! This is one case where what you don’t know actually can’t hurt you. If you’re not aware of someone’s inclusion in a protected class—age, sex, religion, race, color, ethnicity, pregnancy, military status, disability, genetic information, and national origin—then it will be hard for a court to find that you to discriminated against an employee without knowledge of their protected status. Now you can’t turn a blind eye or bury your head in the sand. But some classes are more discreet than others. Obviously, if an employee is wearing a burqa and refuses to pray the rosary – you probably have some idea that the employee was may be Muslim (and, hence against her religious beliefs).
That said, employers need to have open lines of communication with management teams. If a manager learns about someone’s religious beliefs, national origin, or other inclusion in a discreet protected class, there needs to be policies and procedures in place that require reporting up the food chain. Such policies will allow upper management to avoid unlawful discrimination and protect the company from potential lawsuits.
For those who missed it, “Losing My Religion” is the title of a 1991 REM song. I forget that some people who read this won’t be of my vintage.