UK: Advice on Muslims who refuse to serve alcohol

Q: I run a small catering company which has a high turnover of seasonal staff. I’ve had an issue recently where a Muslim member of staff has refused to serve guests alcohol. This is a key part of the employee’s role and I don’t think I could assign them another job – what can I do to ensure I don’t discriminate against them or other members of staff with similar religious beliefs in the future?

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has recently published guidance for employers dealing with requests on religious grounds in the workplace. The guidance, which applies to all genuine religions or beliefs, outlines a number of issues you should consider as an employer when dealing with such requests. Essentially, you should consider all requests seriously, even though other employees sharing the same beliefs may not take the same stance, balancing the request with your legitimate business needs.

If serving alcohol to guests is a key part of the role and a refusal to serve alcohol could not be accommodated by rejigging the duties of other staff or without a detrimental impact on the service provided to customers, it is likely that you would be justified in turning down a request to opt out of serving alcohol.

While this could be seen as indirect religious discrimination, putting a Muslim at a particular disadvantage to others of different religions, you are likely to have a defence against such a claim even if this meant that the person could no longer work for you in the absence of any other available roles.

In future, you should make it clear when advertising and recruiting for that role that serving guests alcohol is a key part of the role.

By Sofia Syed, an associate at Mundays, a law firm.