Biometric Time Clocks and Religious Accommodations: What You Need to Know
Picture this: you’ve just purchased a flashy new biometric time clock and you and your staff couldn’t be happier. It’s 2019 – technology is here to make our lives easier. No more old-fashioned punch cards! No more extra passwords to remember when logging in online! What could go wrong?
Well, HR is full of surprising stories, and you may find yourself with an employee that refuses to use your new system due to religious convictions.
The Mark of the Beast
An issue we hear about frequently regarding biometric time clocks has to do with religious accommodations and the “Mark of the Beast” — a biblical term in the Book of Revelation.
While you’re as excited as can be about your new system, an employee with a strong religious conviction regarding the Mark of the Beast may raise an objection to capturing or using a scan of their hand in order to track time using a biometric time clock. Even though you spent a pretty penny getting the new system in place, this employee wants to use a different method to clock in.
If this seems trivial to you and your first instinct is to tell them there are no other methods available, think again. As HR professionals, here’s what we have always advised: ACCOMMODATE THEM.
Why? Because, with very few exceptions, medical and dental practices will be hard-pressed to show that either:
- This is an unreasonable request and it will be too hard for the employer to provide an alternative clocking method; or
- There is a legitimate business need for biometric clocking in particular, which might provide a basis for refusal to accommodate.
(What would such a “legitimate business need” look like? Think a high-security government contract, where biometric security protocols are part of the job. Note that in this scenario, the need to use a hand scan or fingerprint for logging in would be communicated in advance of hiring the individual. It would be a literal requirement of the position.)
In the most recent newsworthy version of this story, an employee at a West Virginia mine had a sincerely-held religious conviction that letting his hand be scanned as a form of time-tracking was related to the “Mark of the Beast.”
The employee requested an alternate method of time-tracking as a religious accommodation, and his employer refused. Part of the reason for refusal was the biometric time-clock vendor’s “official” explanation, given to the employee, that their technology did not, in fact, represent the Mark of the Beast. The mine felt that this should be enough to resolve the employee’s objection.
The thing is, the vendor’s “official” explanation means nothing to the employee. His beliefs come from his religion and another party’s interpretation of those beliefs isn’t a valid reason for his employer to deny his accommodation.
The mine learned this the hard way. After the employee brought the issue to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the employer ended up having to pay out almost $600,000 in damages and legal fees. Ouch.
So, how do you avoid the same fate?
Before making any decisions, it’s important that you know what rules apply to you. The number of employees you have and the state you live in affect which regulations and which employee protections apply. That said, err on the side of caution. If you’re stuck in a tricky situation, your best move is always to seek trustworthy advice from experts or an attorney with experience in this area of law.
Don’t rely on a vendor — or even what you might perceive as “common sense” — as your last word. Understand that folks with closely held beliefs about anything are more likely to take a stand for those beliefs, and that their requests for accommodation are reasonable to them.
Remember: whenever there is a grey area, your attempt to win a dispute, be right, or “fight the good fight” may also mean that you become a test case. And “test cases” translate to legal fees. Plus, if you lose, you may owe back pay, front pay, and damages to boot.
When an accommodation request is made in your office…
Accommodate the employee. At the end of the day, is the slight “inconvenience” worth the money and time it will take to fight the employee?
If possible, let them log into the same system using an alternative method, such as a swipe card or a username and password. Let them enter their time on a time card. Let them enter a code or click a button on a computer. All of these are reasonable accommodations.
For compliance purposes, always have the employee make the request in writing. Consult with an HR expert when you receive a request so they can help you reply and show that you’re willing to make reasonable accommodations.
Finally, keep in mind that you’re not always going to understand, let alone agree with, an employee’s religious beliefs. Even if you’ve come up with a very good explanation as to why their beliefs may not be accurate, trying to overcome the argument that the employee’s closely-held, legitimate belief isn’t enough to get you to accommodate them will only cause you to be seen as an unsympathetic employer in court, which could very well result in you losing the case.