Ask the panel

October 28, 2005

I am an administration officer and I would like to think I get on well with my colleagues, including my manager. But she insists that our catch-up meetings are held on Friday afternoons. This proves difficult because I am a practising Muslim and I need to pray at that time. When I raise the issue, she says that she can only make that time and that there is no requirement for her to rearrange simply so that I can pray. Is this true? Is there anything I can do?

* Our panellist from the Equality Challenge Unit answers: "To require you to have regular catch-up meetings on Friday afternoons - a time when you, as a Muslim, have to pray - could amount to indirect discrimination under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003. These stipulate that a policy, provision, criteria or a practice that disadvantages people of a particular religion or belief, which is not justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, will amount to indirect discrimination and will be unlawful unless it can be justified."

She continues: "An employer must therefore show that there is a legitimate aim for the policy, and that the action being taken is proportionate to that aim. In your case, your employer would have to demonstrate that there is a real business need for the meetings to take place on Friday afternoons and that no alternative arrangements can be made. If she cannot, the requirement for such meetings at that time could amount to indirect discrimination. We urge you to speak with your manager again to see if an alternative arrangement can be made.

"If this talk does not lead to another arrangement, you should speak to your equal opportunities or human resources manager, who may be able to help with a compromise. You would also be advised to speak with a trade union representative for further advice on your employment rights."

ECU guidance on this can be found at www.ecu.ac.uk/guidance/religionandbelief/

 * Our Natfhe panellist adds: "While there is no direct requirement in the Religion or Belief Regulations 2003 to allow time off for prayer, all responsible guidance suggests that every effort should be made to meet the worship needs of those who are in a religious minority.

"For example, the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service guide on Religion or Belief and the Workplace (the only official guidance) says that 'employers should consider whether their policies, rules and procedures indirectly discriminate against staff of particular religions or beliefs and, if so, whether reasonable changes might be made'."

He concludes: "It seems unlikely that the only time when it is possible for your manager to meet you is the one time when prayer is most important to you. By giving so little weight to your religious needs, she runs the risk of indirectly discriminating against you."

* The Association of University Teachers' panellist sums up:

"The regulations do not say that employers must provide time and facilities for religious observance, but they include provisions outlawing indirect discrimination, such as applying a provision, criterion or practice that disadvantages people of a particular religion or belief.

"The practice of holding meetings on a Friday afternoon would, therefore, constitute indirect discrimination unless the decision can be justified in objective terms. In the circumstances you describe, your manager is unlikely to be able to objectively justify her refusal."

* The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association panellist agrees that there could be a case for indirect discrimination but adds:

"The best advice for this sensitive case is for both parties to discuss their needs.

"Where this is not possible, a senior manager may be able to assist so that the issue is resolved without resorting to the law."

Noz-6 This advice panel includes the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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