WHSmith is investigating reports that a Muslim employee was refused an annual leave request to celebrate Eid, before being threatened with an internal investigation when he called in sick on the day he had requested off.
The high street retailer is under the microscope after an employee (going by the name @mahie29 on Twitter) shared an alleged text message exchange with their manager regarding taking time off sick.
Prior to the conversation, Mahie had reportedly asked to swap shifts with a non-Muslim worker for the date of Saturday, April 22 – the day on which Eid al-Fitr was predicted to fall - but the time off request was reportedly declined for unknown reasons.
getting investigated is CRAZY pic.twitter.com/8jryqkIIOv— M (@mahie29) April 22, 2023
As it happened, the Islamic holy day was observed a day earlier on Friday April 21, meaning Mahie was able to celebrate the end of Ramadan properly. However, the employee subsequently called in sick on the Saturday regardless, stating he was “genuinely ill”.
Screenshots of the text messages, shared on Twitter, appeared to show a manager explaining to Mahie that, because he had called in sick on the date he’d originally requested as annual leave, the company would be investigating his absence.
The message read: “Hi Mahie, sorry to hear you are unwell, as it is Eid and you requested this time off but was declined... we will need a sick note, alternatively if you take the correct medication you should be able to attend this afternoon”.
The manager later said Mahie would “need a doctor's note as this will be fully investigated.”
The post, which was captioned “Getting investigated is crazy”, has since retweeted thousands of times, with many labelling the alleged behaviour as discriminatory.
A WHSmith spokesperson said: “We respect the religious views of all of our colleagues. We are currently investigating this matter fully with our colleagues and will address all concerns raised.”
What the law says
Religion and belief discrimination is illegal in the UK and is listed as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010. It arises when someone is unfairly disadvantaged for reasons related to their religion or their beliefs.
However, according to Acas, employers are under no obligation to automatically give staff time off for religious holidays or festivals, time to pray or a place to pray.
However, Acas adds that a firm “should consider requests carefully and sympathetically, be reasonable and flexible where possible, and discuss the request and explore any concerns with the employee.
“Refusing a request without a good business reason could amount to discrimination. An employee, in making a request, should be reasonable, flexible and sympathetic too in taking into account the demands of their job and the needs of the organisation employing them.”
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Furthermore, when it comes to staff requesting time off for holy days, Acas explains the matter is best addressed when a candidate is first offered a position within the workforce.
“Job applicants should take into account that a business operating seven days a week will need at least some staff working on a holy day,” the Acas website says. “A successful applicant should be clear about their working hours and days before accepting a job offer.
“However, if an employee asks not to work on a holy day, the employer should consider the request carefully and sympathetically, be reasonable and flexible where possible, and discuss the request and explore any concerns with the employee. Refusing the request without a good business reason could amount to discrimination.
“The employee, in making the request, should be reasonable, flexible and sympathetic too in taking into account their contract, the demands of their job and the needs of the organisation employing them.”
What HR should know
Acas goes on to advise: “Employers, managers, HR personnel, employees and their employee or trade union representatives should make sure they understand: Religion or belief discrimination, key points for the workplace, what religion or belief discrimination is and how it can happen, their rights and responsibilities the employer’s policy for preventing discrimination, and what behaviour and actions are unacceptable such as derogatory comments about an employee’s religion or belief.
"Also, employer and employees should be very careful regarding questions related to an individual’s religion or belief, as these might be or become discriminatory, particularly if they are intrusive or handled insensitively.
"It can be beneficial for an employer to offer all staff a grounding in religion or belief in the workplace. Further, an employer should provide training for all staff in constructively developing their understanding of each other. In the organisation, these steps can help foster good relations and prevent discrimination."