Workplace conflicts over religion increase

Published: Saturday, January 18, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 10:41 p.m.
NEW YORK- By the time Carol Grotts arrived for her first day at Brink's Inc., she'd completed the company's orientation program and submitted to a background check, then had her fingers pressed into an ink pad.
She hadn't counted on the company's final question: What size pants did she wear?
Managers said "we would never have hired you if we'd known you did not wear pants.'... But it's against my religion," said Grotts, hired as a uniformed guard for an armored car crew at Brink's Bartonville, Ill. office. "For them to tell me I can't have the job, I knew that was discrimination."
The disagreement between Brink's and Grotts, a Pentecostal Christian whose religion forbids women to wear pants, might sound isolated and unique. But her case reflects a steady rise in workplace conflicts over religion, one that predated a surge in anti-Muslim incidents since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Worker complaints of religious discrimination made to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission jumped more than 20 percent last year, driven primarily by claims of retaliation against Muslims.
But in a much more gradual trend, complaints akin to Grotts', involving a broad range of religions, have slowly mounted - up 85 percent over the past decade. Such cases make up a very small percentage of overall workplace discrimination complaints, but they are rising at a much faster rate.
"People look at religion now ... as more central to who they are and they come to work with that religious piece" of themselves, said Chris Metzler, who directs Cornell University's equal employment studies program.
Many employers have adjusted by encouraging employees to tolerate differences, and agreeing to worker requests for adjustments in schedule and dress codes, allowing for holiday decorations or creation of onsite religious affinity groups.
But those efforts have not prevented all conflicts.
In a survey of personnel executives released last year, 20 percent said their companies had seen worker requests for religious accommodations increase in the past five years.
About one in five said their companies have seen instances of employees proselytizing to co-workers.
Those changes may help explain the steady uptick in religious discrimination complaints to the EEOC. The agency fielded 2,572 last year, up from 1,388 complaints in 1992, with a little less than half the increase attributed to complaints by Muslims.
"You have employees of hundreds of different religions in the workplace ... and some employers are not aware of their obligations to make accommodations," said David Grinberg, a spokesman for the EEOC.
Grotts says she offered to pay for a skirt or other alternative garment made of the same material as Brink's required uniform. But that offer was rejected, and she was fired. The company rehired her two years later, in 1999, after intervention by the EEOC, but laid her off last year, citing economic reasons.
Brink's agreed in early January to settle the case by paying Grotts $30,000, covering her attorney's fees and pledging to train all the managers at the office just outside Peoria, Ill., in religious accommodation requirements.
In another recent case, the EEOC sued the Dillard's Inc. department store chain last year for requiring a sales clerk, Sharon Conway, to work Sundays at one of its St. Louis stores although she told the company when she was hired that she is an ordained Baptist minister. The case is still pending.
Some conflicts have flared over religious practices that are outside the mainstream.
In a case concluded in 2001, a St. Paul, Minn., postal worker, Robert Hurston, alleged that his co-workers and supervisors harassed him because he practices Wicca, more commonly known as witchcraft. Hurston said many of his co-workers wore crucifixes or clothes with Christian images on them that never drew a second look.
"I'd wear a T-shirt that said 'Born Again Pagan,' on it and I'd be told I couldn't wear that shirt anymore," said Hurston, an electronic technician, who won his case on appeal before the EEOC.
Spokeswomen for Brink's declined to comment specifically on the charges brought against the firms. Dillard's and the U.S. Postal Service did not respond to requests for comment.
Employers are not used to addressing the wide range of religious practices, said Georgette Bennett, president of the New York-based Tanenbaum Center. The rise of such practices is partly due to an influx of immigrants in recent years. A general aging of the population also seems to affect workplace attitudes, with researchers finding people feeling more religious as they get older, Bennett said.
Additionally, the increased politicization of religion means more workers have "become emboldened to assert their religious rights in a way they might not have been before," she said.
Diversity training programs have helped smooth some tensions. But Cornell's Metzler said such efforts, if not well thought out, sometimes come back to bite companies, encouraging people to be open about their personal beliefs without foreseeing a potential backlash.
Grotts said her complaint against Brink's was more about wanting her desire to get to work rather than attract attention to her religious identity.
"I've always been known as the girl who could work harder than the guys," she said. "I feel like, as long as the job gets done, what difference does it make?"

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top