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How not to deal with a request for religious accommodation

August 5, 2015

By Anthony Kaylin, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

When a legitimate request for a religious accommodation is granted, employers have to be careful to train all managers to respect the need for the accommodation and the accommodation itself. Otherwise it could not only cost the employer a good employee but much money and goodwill as well.

Sean Mohammed was a Seventh Day Adventist who was employed as an assistant manager for Mini Price Storage. When Mohammed interviewed for the position, he stated that he could work every day of the week except Saturday, his Sabbath. He worked for the company from February 12, 2007 to January 31, 2011, when he was terminated.

For his first three years of employment, Mohammed had no issues with scheduling.  He never worked a Saturday. He also received, from 2008 to 2010, a number of secret shop evaluations in which he received an overall rating of “Excellent” or a total score of 100 out of 100 possible points. At one shop he was “rated as providing the best experience across all of Mini Price.”  However, trouble began when he was assigned a new supervisor, Tashondi Goodman, an 11-year veteran of Mini Price.

When Goodman became Mohammed’s manager in August 2010, she was not happy that he didn’t work Saturdays.  The two met and discussed the issue.  Goodman was asked why he wouldn’t work on Saturdays and he “explained to her again [that he] was Seventh-[D]ay Adventist. This was [his] day of worship. [H]is relationship with Christ was important to [him].” To which Goodman replied, “Well, since you don’t work on Saturdays, that will probably qualify you to be a floater.” A “floater” is an assistant manager who goes to different stores as needed. Goodman also stated that his skill set and strengths made him a good choice to support the other stores.

In September 2010, Mohammed began working as a floater and was assigned to work a Saturday at a store, the purpose of the assignment being for Mohammed to learn the store processes.  Mohammed met with the store manager for that store, discussing his need for the Saturday off.  The store manager then called Goodman, who had final approval for all store scheduling.  Goodman came to meet with the two. 

Goodman told Mohammed that he needed to work Saturdays or he wouldn’t be considered a team player.  She then stated that he would never “advance within the company if [he] didn’t start working on Saturdays.”  Mohammed replied, “Are you telling me if I don’t give up my religious beliefs, I won’t go anywhere with the company?” Goodman responded, “That is what I am saying.”

After that conversation, Goodman began assigning Mohammed to stores outside her area and reduced his schedule.  In October 2010 Mohammed questioned why his hours were being reduced.  Other floaters were not being treated this way.  He reiterated to her that he was hired with the understanding that he would have Saturdays off.  She then told him that his Saturday request would be honored, and that he was a “valued employee.”

Goodman then explained that his advancement with the company was impeded by “some concerns with work performance.” She directed him to:

  • Improve his verbal tone with co-workers, higher management and customers
  • Allow managers to make executive decisions before taking the initiative to do so
  • Cease completing personal tasks during business hours
  • Complete paperwork according to company policy unless given a management directive to do otherwise
  • Complete assigned daily tasks

Even though these issues were not considered significant enough to terminate Mohammed, three months later Goodman terminated him for lack of productivity—at least that is what Goodman told Mohammed.

She told HR that she was terminating Mohammed for a lack of performance and lack of work.  Mohammed requested an exit interview, and he met with the CEO/CFO, the Vice President and the HR Manager. He told them he believed he was terminated in retaliation for refusing to work on Saturdays.  But they did nothing; his termination stood.

Mohammed then sued the company for religious discrimination and retaliation.  At trial, Goodman was shown to have had the opportunity to explain why she terminated Goodman on five separate occasions; but nearly every time she gave a different explanation from her last one. The court held that the reason for Mohammed’s termination was pretextual.  The outcome was judgement for Mohammed to the tune of $150,000 and attorney costs. 

This result was on HR. If HR fails to see to it that managers are properly trained to refrain from such obvious mismanagement of a legitimate request for an accommodation, or that basic processes are in place, properly documented and consistently carried out, then managers can be expected to make appalling and very expensive mistakes with employees.

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