The vast majority of people in the United States belong to an established religious group, but an estimated 3 percent of the total U.S. work force are considered strict observers, who may require special considerations on the job.

This presents a growing management challenge to BSCs, who rely on an increasingly diverse applicant base. How will these individuals fit into your business? Or, a better question — how can you fit them into your business?

An employer’s best bet when hiring or managing people with special or unusual needs is to be familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), according to David Tulin, president of Tulin DiversiTeam Associates, a Pennsylvania firm that specializes in managing diversity in the workplace.

Although created with the physically challenged in mind, the broad legal and humanitarian concepts in ADA legislation, which serve as a guideline to protect both employer and employee, can apply to almost any employment situation.

“The ADA is a model to compare the issue,” says Tulin. “It says you cannot discriminate against someone who is qualified and can perform the essential functions of the job as long as reasonable accommodations are made on the part of the employer.”

The Act incorporates three key terms, which cover the basis for what BSCs should consider when accommodating employees with religious needs. These three terms are “reasonable accommodation,” “essential job function,” and “undue hardship.”

Accommodation in action
Many times, BSCs will be able to accommodate a religious need with little difficulty. For instance, observant Muslims must pray five specific times each day. It takes a few minutes to perform, facing the east, assuming prescribed postures, and done, preferably, in private. A reasonable accommodation would be to allow the employee, while fulfilling their essential job function, to schedule their breaks at these times, which should not pose an undue hardship to the employer.

Sometimes, religious accommodations must be made by employees for the employer, too. For example, Wes Rozell, owner of a ServiceMaster franchise in Manchester, N.H. and a Seventh Day Adventist, observes a Sabbath that's different from most other western religions, so his company’s work week is Sunday through Thursday evening.

This non-traditional workweek serves the firm well, explains Rozell.

“The Muslim holy day is Friday, so our work week doesn’t impact any of those people,” he says. “Then we have one or two who don’t work Sundays, but then others have the opportunity to work more and earn more.”

This schedule juggling works well for many 24/7 operations, where it’s easier for employees to trade hours or shifts to get time off, or make some extra cash, which go-getters could perceive as a reason to stay longer at their positions.

Another example of reasonable accommodation is considering the Muslim observation of Ramadan, says Bruce Robinson, Director of Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. Ramadan is a daily religious observance that lasts one month, during which time followers cannot eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. This poses a potential safety hazard, due to a weakened state.

“That’s a problem if they’re involved in construction or heavy labor,” explains Robinson, “but they can be put on lighter detail.”

Assuming, in the last instance, the BSC has enough employees to manage the work, none of these examples constitutes undue hardship to an employer, because essential job functions can be met through means that do not have a negative impact on the business.

But cases of undue hardship do exist. For instance, working one-on-one with a member of the opposite sex, without a chaperone, is forbidden for strict Muslims and Orthodox Jews. While this won’t necessarily present a problem for a large company with many employees, a small cleaning firm may not have enough workers to create a single-sex crew without significant re-scheduling. That would constitute undue hardship, and the employer isn’t required to make the change.

“The bottom line is if the company can’t accommodate, they can’t be held liable,” says Tulin.

But there are many things employers can do to adjust to a situation, and would be wise to think through all the options before making employment decisions.

Essential job duties can be redefined. For instance, if leading team meetings or giving group presentations is something the religious observant can do, then have someone else perform the one-to-one work.

“You have to be pretty creative sometimes,” Tulin admits.

Legal liabilities
Even the most accommodating manager can be faced with a lawsuit, so it’s always wise to cover your bases.

“You need to provide an affirmative defense,” advises Tulin. “Documentation can prove that you tried reasonable accommodations and either the employee refused, or it presented an undue hardship.”

Document whether jobs were open. Save e-mails outlining the steps you took to determine if an accommodation could be made. Add a section in your employee manual on the topic, even if it is generic.

Additionally, supervisors should not delegate communicating company policies to employees, because, again, it waters down the defense. Plus, supervisors may learn more about individual workers’ situations, in one-on-one discussions, that allow them to consider different options not currently considered.

Even if a lawsuit is frivolous, an ounce of prevention will yield a thousand times its weight in preparing a defense. Though, the best remedy for such situations often is found in establishing and maintaining a trusting relationship, which can cut off litigation by 80 percent, says Tulin.

And if the employer can bend a little bit, they usually can accommodate, and will end up with a fiercely loyal employee, adds Robinson.

Dietary restrictions shouldn’t impact job duties
Many religions have dietary restrictions. For example, Muslims cannot consume pork or alcohol. Jews are not allowed to eat pig products, shellfish, any meat not slaughtered properly, or to mix milk and meat. Hindus are forbidden to ingest beef.

While they may not be able to eat certain things, David Tulin, of Tulin DiversiTeam Associates, says religious observants with dietary restrictions may share tables with those eating the off-limits food. Also, most observers are willing to clean food-preparation areas where the forbidden substance has been.

"Most people who are Orthodox are not closeted out," Tulin explained. "They choose to be in a culture with people with other eating habits. Their food has the right to not be contaminated, but they can share a table."

Lori Veit owns Veit Communications, llc, a writing and public relations firm in Madison, Wis.