Dueling Discriminations

Religion vs. gender


Can a handshake be grounds for a lawsuit? Perhaps, under a European Union directive passed in 2000 requiring member states to crack down on workplace discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, and religion. The United Kingdom passed legislation prohibiting religious discrimination earlier this year, with provisions set to take effect in December. But a report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), a professional association for managers, raises the specter of dueling discrimination lawsuits pitting religious and gender discrimination claims against each other.

As an example of a possible conflict, imagine a man whose religious beliefs prohibit contact with women. Does his refusal to shake hands with female colleagues constitute gender discrimination? Or is it religious discrimination if his female superiors take offense? Under the new legislation, it's not clear, according to Dianah Worman, head of diversity for CIPD. "The point of the directive wasn't to make one type of discrimination more important than the other," Worman says. "The intention isn't a pecking order….We'll have to wait until it all comes out. The courts will be the testing ground."

In the next few months, employers will be considering the legal implications of having alcohol at work functions and the logistics of allowing employees time for prayer. The legal muddle is due to get cloudier still in 2006, when E.U. members must add a prohibition on age discrimination to the mix.