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Do you give the time off?

You own a machine shop. A new Canadian who is clearly the top contender for an apprenticeship has made an unusual request: in return for starting work earlier, could he have Friday afternoons off to attend prayers at his mosque? You wonder how your longtime employees will react. Do you hire him?

By Ken Gallinger and Ruth McQuirter Scott

This is one of those questions for which the answer seems, on the surface, obvious. I’m a good liberal Christian. This is my opportunity to introduce diversity into my workforce. And if someone with my commitment to social justice can’t offer someone like this a chance, who can?

I’ll feel good about myself, as well. At church gatherings and cocktail parties, I can slip into conversation a mention of my new Muslim apprentice, and thus further establish myself as a free-thinking United Church member. I’m blazing an inclusive trail. Follow me, follow me!

But wait a minute.

This fellow wants to be an “apprentice.” The nature of apprenticeship is that a learner works along with licensed machinists to learn the trade. It’s great that this fellow is prepared to come in early every day, but the apprenticeship covenant implies that his mentors would also have to modify their schedules to meet his need. He can’t learn the trade if teachers aren’t there to teach him.

That’s why I’m worried how “longtime employees” will react. It’s not just that they’ll be jealous that the apprentice is getting special privileges; for this to work, they will need to rejig their own week to accommodate the new guy’s religious needs. I have no right to make that decision for them.

Such a change isn’t necessarily out of the question, of course. Perhaps other workers would also be willing to start earlier each morning in return for Friday afternoons off. I’d certainly be willing to run it by the other staff; if they’re okay with it, then it’s a win-win. He’s hired.

Failing that, however, he’s out of luck. For better or worse, the days are gone when workplaces shape their schedules around the religious needs of individual workers, whether those employees be Muslim, Jewish, Christian or anything else.

Author's photo
Ruth McQuirter Scott is an educator and member of Port Nelson United in Burlington, Ont.

I am very pleased with the qualifications of this candidate. The fact that he is a new Canadian is of interest, since I know how hard it can be for immigrants to gain Canadian experience and because I know companies can benefit from the knowledge and contacts that new Canadians bring to the workplace. It’s the request for Friday afternoons off that makes me pause.

I am aware that the Friday afternoon prayer is particularly important for Muslims, since it is the only one that must be performed in a congregation. It won’t be enough for me to offer my apprentice a private prayer space in my shop.

Yet I also have to think of the well-being of my business. What’s the workload normally like on Friday afternoons? Are we scrambling to get orders filled by the end of the week? Do I need all hands on deck? My would-be apprentice has offered to come in early to make up the hours. That may compensate for his absence on Friday afternoons, but I need to consider whether this accommodation will work. Does he have to be supervised? In which case, will someone else also have to come in early each day? Is his work such that he can do his part independently without needing to be part of a team?

I want to give this worker a chance, both for his sake and for the potential benefits to my business. If my longtime employees object, I’ll remind them of the times I have accommodated their personal requests. I’ll also emphasize that this is not a matter of someone wanting to leave early for the cottage, but rather a religious accommodation that he has a right to request. I’ll offer the applicant the position with a six-month probationary period. At that time, I will assess whether his request creates undue hardship for my business and act accordingly.

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