Religious discrimination

Religious discrimination: an introduction

Employers must aim to treat everyone in the workplace fairly, regardless of religion or belief.

While religion is generally practiced outside the workplace, there may be times when religious life and working life come into contact, such as when people wear religious clothing. Employers can impose a dress code, but it is good practice to ensure the rules to be followed make appropriate allowances for employees to observe religious practices, where possible.

Employers should allow you time off to observe religious holidays and practices, if it does not interfere with business. A refusal could amount to discrimination if the employer cannot explain its reasons for the decision.

You do not have to give information to your employer about your religion, but if you do, it will help them meet your needs. Your employer should have policies and procedures in place to prevent religious discrimination occurring in the workplace. 

What might be considered religious discrimination?

Unlawful discrimination of a worker because of their religion can include more than abusive comments or offensive jokes. Discrimination or bullying on religious grounds may cover workplace rules, or policies in employment, or a refusal to offer a person work because of their religion. 

Harassment and bullying at work

The law protects workers from “harassment” and this can cover most forms of workplace bullying. The behaviour complained about must occur because the claimant has a particular characteristic covered by the Equality Act, such as religion. In Northern Ireland, similar protection is provided for by the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 (FETO).

Bullying at work can happen when someone intimidates or offends another. The behaviour can occur in front of co-workers, in writing, over the phone, or by email. You may be being bullied if you are:

  • humiliated;
  • blamed for problems;
  • given excessive work;
  • denied opportunities.

A lot of people tolerate bullying and hope it will stop, but such behaviour often continues until someone takes action.

You cannot make a legal claim directly about bullying under FETO in Northern Ireland or the Equality Act in Great Britain, but you may be protected if the behaviour amounts to harassment. Any person experiencing unwanted conduct that occurs because of their religion (in this example, but the same applies to all of the other protected characteristics, such as race) might have grounds for making a complaint.

If you are affected by an intolerable workplace situation and might be thinking of resigning, you should speak to a UNISON rep without delay, and always before taking such action.

If you are being bullied or discriminated against

If you think you are being bullied or discriminated against because of your religion, you should speak to someone about the issue. It’s a good idea to keep a written record of every incident as supporting evidence of your treatment. Try to deal with problems informally first, which might mean speaking to your employer or UNISON rep.

Deal with discrimination and bullying concerns by:

  • talking to your UNISON representative;
  • talking to the person you have issues with (if you are able) or ask someone else (such as your line manager) to talk to them;
  • raising an informal or formal grievance by following your employer’s grievance procedures;
  • considering whether the complaint should be taken further, if the matter cannot be resolved by your employer’s internal procedures (such as the grievance procedures). We strongly advise that you seek further assistance from a UNISON representative to explore what options are available, including advice on what would be involved in making a complaint to an employment tribunal.

Religious discrimination and the law

The Equality Act (and FETO in Northern Ireland) covers discrimination at work, making it unlawful for employers to treat you less favourably than others because of your religion or belief (this is direct discrimination which includes political opinion in Northern Ireland).

The act makes it unlawful for employers to have a rule, policy or practice which someone of a particular religion or belief (including political opinion in Northern Ireland) is less likely to be able to meet than others (indirect discrimination).

The act also makes harassment and victimisation unlawful. The part of the act that applies specifically to organisations in the public sector is called the Public Sector Equality Duty. There are similar provisions in Northern Ireland addressed by the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

The police deal with hate crimes, which are criminal offences committed against a person or property caused by hatred of someone because of their religion, as well as the other protected characteristics (i.e. race, colour, ethnic origin or nationality for example).

Next steps for UNISON representatives

If a co-worker is being bullied or discriminated against because of their religion, be prepared to advise them on the next steps they should take. Refer to the guides below and if you are unsure, speak to your regional officer or branch manager.

The member seeking advice may ask you to speak to the person they are having issues with, or help them speak to their employer about the issue. You may need to advise them on raising a grievance and attend grievance meetings.

If a member seeks legal information, advice or representation, use the UNISON case form, which you can find via the all articles section of this topic.

Key facts
  • Bullying at work could happen when someone tries to intimidate another worker, especially in front of co-workers.
  • It might be possible to make a related complaint under the Equality Act (FETO in Northern Ireland).
  • If you think you are being bullied or discriminated against because of your religion, talk to your UNISON rep immediately.


Religious discrimination

  • A co-worker makes me feel uncomfortable with things she says about my religion at work, but I’m not sure if this is bullying – what should I do?

    This behaviour might amount to harassment under the Equality Act (or FETO in Northern Ireland).

    You should speak to your UNISON rep, who can advise you of the options available to you.

  • I am bullied because of my religion at work and I want to resign. Can I claim unfair dismissal?

    If you feel you have to resign because of your treatment and want to file a claim for (constructive) unfair dismissal, you would need to show that your employer has committed a serious breach of contract, which in effect ended the contract. This is a very serious step to take and we would never advise anyone to resign without first seeking specific advice on the situation from a UNISON rep.

  • I have complained to my manager about being discriminated against at work, my co-workers have found out and the situation has got worse. Is there anything else I can do?

    It is against the law to victimise an employee because they have complained about religious (or any other) discrimination. You should speak to your rep or contact UNISONdirect on 0845 355 0845 for further advice.

  • I want to wear an item of clothing to work which has religious significance. Could I be sacked?

    Employers can impose a dress code, but it is good practice to accommodate flexibility of the rules on religious grounds. Remember, it might not be discrimination if you have to dress in a particular way for health and safety reasons. You may have to wear protective headwear, even though it is against your religion to remove your turban, for example.