Religious issues in the workplace are challenging both from a legal and practical standpoint. Managers and HR professionals want employees to feel accepted and included, and they don’t want anyone to feel targeted or mistreated based on their religious beliefs or practices. Problems can arise, however, where an employee’s religious practices interfere with the employee’s job or professional interactions. How do you accommodate the employee’s beliefs while also ensuring that the employee meets the job’s requirements?

I recently saw where a reader of a management blog wrote in asking about the following situation: A company brought in a candidate for a job interview, but the candidate refused to shake hands with the female members of the interview team (he readily shook hands with the male interviewers). Why? The candidate’s religion, Islam, prohibited him from shaking hands (or otherwise physically interacting) with women to whom he was not related or married. This was off-putting to some of the members of the interviewing team. They were also concerned about the candidate’s interactions with females in the workplace:  would he have trouble taking directives from a female superior or treat female co-workers unfairly?

By way of background, it appears that this religious edict goes both ways: Muslim females are also not supposed to shake hands or otherwise physically interact with male non-relatives. Some Muslims choose to ignore this prohibition altogether, and some who generally follow the practice will shake hands anyway in some circumstances for fear of ostracism or creating awkward social situations.

The question asked in the blog was: How should an employer deal with this situation? Does an employer risk a religious discrimination lawsuit if they fail to hire the candidate based on the refusal to shake hands? How does the company manage the risks addressed above if they do hire the candidate?

Turns out a federal court has had to answer these very questions.  In Sheikh v. Independent School District 535, a 2001 case in Minnesota, a school district hired a Muslim immigrant from Somalia for a paraprofessional role. The employee, Mr. Sheikh, refused to shake hands with any of his female co-workers. Instead, he would clasp his hands together and bow forward in greeting. The court noted that “it [was] undisputed that several of the female staff members took offense that Mr. Sheikh would not shake hands with them.”

After some time, several employees complained about Mr. Sheikh’s job performance:  about his poor attendance, lacking interpersonal skills, and his not being as responsive as was needed. Around this same time, Mr. Sheikh complained that he was experiencing discrimination by his co-workers in the form of (i) ostracism and (ii) fabricated complaints about his performance. In response, the school district brought in consultants and Muslim leaders from the community to discuss Islamic religious practices and help the staff members engage in a “harmonious working relationship.”

Later, Mr. Sheikh was laid off along with many other non-Muslim paraprofessionals based on budget constraints. Mr. Sheikh filed a lawsuit alleging that the way he was treated by his co-workers constituted religious hostile work environment harassment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The court ultimately ruled for the school district. Mr. Sheikh failed to present sufficient evidence that any of alleged mistreatment by his co-workers was based on his religion and not just “displeasure with his job performance and mere ostracism.” The court further explained the general rule that allegations of perceived mistreatment are not enough to establish a hostile working environment harassment claim without something “more tangible.” The Court also found that the school district took prompt and appropriate steps by actively working to improve workplace relations when it became apparent there was an issue.

So what does the Sheikh case tell us? First and foremost, employers should not refuse to hire or otherwise take adverse action against a Muslim individual based on a refusal to shake hands, even if others find it off-putting. Second, an employer should not discourage the employee’s refusal to shake hands. Third, if others do find it off-putting, the employer should engage in an educational process to teach explain what the religious practice is, how and why it is important for practitioners of the religion, and alternatives for interacting with one another in a professional way.

If the situation does not improve, employers should thoroughly investigate the problem and figure out exactly what’s going on. Is it just personal animosity unrelated to religion? Is there something else underlying the issues? These steps and the findings should be documented and appropriate action should be taken based on those findings, which will vary widely in each situation.  Handling such a situation professionally and with an open mind towards promoting an inclusive workplace is likely your best bet – as well as the best way to stay out of court.