Court OKs religious accommodation suit challenging ethics course mandate
- An employee can continue with his claim that his employer failed to accommodate a religious belief that prevented him from completing an ethics course, a federal district court said (Brennan v. Deluxe Corporation, No. 18-cv-2119 (D. Md. Jan. 18, 2019)).
- Frederick Brennan said his born-again Christian beliefs prohibited him from answering a question about transgender issues in his employer's ethics compliance course. The employee notified HR about his conflict and received a 1% salary reduction for failing to complete the course. Shortly thereafter, the employer also decided to terminate him.
- Brennan sued, and the employer, Deluxe Corporation, argued that excusing him from the training would amount to an undue hardship because the course provided information on how to perform a job and comply with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance. But Brennan argued that he had met the initial requirements for a religious accommodation claim and that "the question of 'whether accommodating the Plaintiff's religious beliefs is an undue burden on the Defendant should not be considered at this point because to do so would require the Court to weigh the merits of Defendant's contentions'" — and the court agreed. The court did, however, dismiss Brennan's claim that Deluxe discriminated against him based on his religion.
While the fact-specific undue burden question in Brennan remains unanswered, Deluxe's HR manager's response was textbook, as the email exchange provided to the court revealed. After Brennan notified HR of his concerns, the manager provided him with more context about the company's ethics course: "The Ethics and Compliance courses are designed to reflect our policy of inclusiveness and non-discrimination," the email read. "It is important that as an employee of Deluxe you recognize that we do not expect you to change your values or beliefs but rather, as an employee, your behaviors at work are expected to uphold Deluxe's standards and values."
This language reflects the attitude Laura Castillo-Page, senior director, Diversity Policy and Programs and Organizational Capacity Building at the Association of American Medical Colleges, has suggested employers apply toward employees who may exhibit biases about some of their colleagues. Companies striving to hold workers accountable for their behavior will need to acknowledge that, even if they can't change employees' minds, they may be able to shape their actions, she previously told HR Dive.
While the Deluxe HR manager appears to have had the training — and the good sense — that resulted in a polite but firm explanation of the company's policies, not every manager does. In fact, recent research from West Monroe Partners found that 41% of managers who oversee three to five workers have had no training at all.
It's important that managers have the tools and the knowledge they need to avoid making sticky compliance issues even sticker, as well as help employees do their best work. Employers hoping to avoid litigation will want to ensure their managers know not only how to handle the early stages of discrimination claims, but also how to manage Family Medical Leave Act requests and Americans with Disabilities Act-related situations — failings that often land employers in hot water.
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