Religion or belief: opting out of work duties

Advice and Guidance

Who is this page for?

  • Employers

Which countries is it relevant to?

    • Great Britain

      Great Britain

Answers to the main religion or belief questions about opting out of work duties, developed with employers. Part of our religion or belief frequently asked questions.

The range of requests related to opting out of work duties will depend largely on the make-up of the organisation. Some of the most common requests are opting out of handling alcohol or meat, providing a service and specific medical activities. Employees may also want to opt out of carrying out duties at certain times or on certain days in order to comply with their beliefs.  

You do not have to automatically agree to an employee’s request to opt out of a work duty. However, in most cases, you must give proper consideration to it and make sure that you are not discriminating against the employee if you refuse. See our decision-making tool to help you handle employee requests.

You do not have to accept an employee’s request not to handle alcohol. However you must give proper consideration to it. See our decision-making tool to help you handle employee requests.

When looking at whether or not it is possible to allow the request you will want to think about a number of factors including the cost, disruption and wider impact on business or work, and the impact on others. Maintaining a fully operational service for customers would be a genuine organisational need. You would then need to consider what is proportionate to meet that need.

If you refuse a request you must make sure you are not indirectly or directly discriminating against your employee or others sharing the same religion or belief. See our guide to the law to find out more about direct and indirect discrimination.

No, the employee is legally required to provide goods, facilities or services in the same way to all members of the public, regardless of the member of the public’s sexual orientation, sex, gender identity, race, disability or religion or belief. If they refuse to do so, they would be directly discriminating against the member of the public on the grounds of their particular protected characteristic. You would be entitled to take disciplinary action against an employee if they do refuse to carry out their duties in this way.

If the employee insists that they will not provide goods, facilities or services and you, as the employer, are aware of this conduct and do nothing to prevent it, you can be liable for the discriminatory acts of your employee. You will be liable unless you can show you have taken all reasonable steps to prevent the discrimination.

It is good practice for organisations to have a clear equality and diversity policy. It is also good practice to provide relevant and appropriate training that includes the requirements of the Equality Act 2010 and sets out what behaviour constitutes discrimination.

If you are a public body, or delivering a service on behalf of a public body, you are also subject to the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED). The PSED requires public sector bodies or organisations carrying out public functions under contract to a public sector body (for example, a private firm providing care services under contract to a local authority) to have due regard to the need to: eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation and other conduct prohibited by the Equality Act 2010, advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not and foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.

An employee whose role involves the provision of a service to the public or a section of the public (whether for payment or not) cannot legally refuse to do part of their job on the basis of their religion or belief if that refusal discriminates against a service user. You would be entitled to take disciplinary action against an employee if they refuse to carry out their duties in this way.

As an employer, you need to take all reasonable steps to prevent your employees from discriminating against a service user because of their protected characteristic otherwise you will be liable for their discriminatory acts. Because the informal arrangement may in the future result in a service user receiving a worse service because of the service user’s protected characteristic, you should ensure that any informal arrangement of this kind is stopped. It would be good practice to explain to employees who have changed work duties why the arrangement could result in  unlawful discrimination.

If you are a public body, or delivering a service on behalf of a public body, you are also subject to the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED). The PSED requires public sector bodies or organisations carrying out public functions under contract to a public sector body (for example, a private firm providing care services under contract to a local authority) to have due regard to the need to: eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation and other conduct prohibited by the Equality Act 2010, advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not and foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.

No, your employee cannot refuse on grounds of religion or belief to manage, train or supervise a colleague because the colleague has a particular protected characteristic (for example, because of the colleague’s sexual orientation, sex, gender identity, race, disability or religion or belief). Allowing this to happen would be treating the colleague less favourably because of that protected characteristic and so would be direct discrimination.

For example, if an employee refused to manage a colleague because that colleague is gay or disabled, the colleague could bring a claim of direct sexual orientation or disability discrimination against the employee and against you as their employer. You would be legally liable for your employee's unlawful discrimination unless you could show you had taken all reasonable steps to prevent it.

Yes. If circumstances have changed since you granted the request you can review the situation. For example, if your business now has fewer employees than when the request was granted, having to cover the opted-out duties may have a greater impact on the employee’s remaining colleagues. The reduction may even mean that there are not enough colleagues to cover the duties without the employee’s help. In reaching your decision you would also need to consider the impact on the employee of reversing your earlier decision. 

Giving clear reasons and putting any decision in writing will help your employee to understand the reasons behind it. It is good practice, if you think a decision may need to be reviewed later, to explain this at the time of the original decision.

Last updated: 27 Mar 2017

Further information

If you think you might have been treated unfairly and want further advice, you can contact the Equality Advisory and Support Service.

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