A hiring strategy has turned into a national debate on workers’ rights and religious freedom. The Ariens Co. has been in the spotlight — and under the microscope — for issues related to employees who are Muslim. In upholding their religious customs, the employees must pray five times a day, during specified times. This means leaving the manufacturing line during unscheduled break times.

The latest update on the issue from the Journal Sentinel is that 32 of the Muslim employees have chosen to stay within the break policy; 14 had resigned and 7 were fired.

Experts nationwide are sounding off on the legal rights and ramifications. In a Washington Post story, Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and belief says that Civil rights laws generally require that employers allow for reasonable accommodations for their workers’ religious practices, once a supervisor becomes aware that that is needed, said Daniel Mach.

In IndustryWeek, a manufacturing trade publication, Susan Warner, an employment attorney with Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, says that if the issue escalates to a lawsuit or formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Ariens will need to prove two things to be in the clear. It must show that it tried to accommodate employees’ religion within reason. And it must show that the accommodation employees require would cause “more than a minimal burden on the operation of the employer’s business,” as EEOC regulations state.

The issue becomes even more complicated based on the fact that Ariens hired this particular group of employees through an employment agency and pays to bus them to work.

This is a contentious time in our country and situations like these highlight the volatility related to a whole host of issues, from religious to political. It’s easy to highlight what Ariens did wrong, but it’s better to learn about the issues they raised.

  1. Make sure the person who heads human resources at your dealership is an expert, not just someone who is good at recruiting or doing interviews. 
  2. Make sure your employment policies are understood and agreed to by your employees — and within the guidelines of employee law. If you have questions, here is a list contacts for EEOC small business liaisons.
  3. Diversity is a good and achievable goal, regardless of where your dealership is located. Make the most of it by learning and sharing customs to build awareness, tolerance and camaraderie.

This comment from Dan Ariens, president, sums up the dangers of outside judgments: “People in the Facebook world say things they shouldn’t. Most of the negativity is aimed at the Muslim population, and I am more worried about that than our business.”

We’ll watch how the situation resolves and share more about lessons learned related to employee law.