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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Religion in the Workplace

Hello Evil HR Lady,

There has been some conflict lately around religious expression during break time at work. We have a small staff, <10 people. We have a small area where staff can allegedly take private breaks, change clothes, eat lunch etc. Because our staff is small, we usually only have one person taking a break at a time - if we really work at it, 2 of us can be in there at the same time.

Recently, the owner 'caught' two of us 'praying' quietly together in the break room, during a break (one worker was having a lot of difficulties that day and her grandmother was in the process of dying). Different staff members have done this sort of thing several times in the past (quiet, consensual, spiritual sustenance/healing, during break) - in times of great stress, and the owner has never noticed. But this particular time, the owner found reason to put a nose into the break room a few times to discern what was going on, then rudely forced us to stop, scolded us and told us never to do it again. This was a shock to many of us who work there.

Now, the owner is finding it necessary to add a "no promotion of religion" policy which restricts religious expression at the workplace. The parts of the new policy that I am most concerned about include:

"does not restrict a staff member from reading religious materials on a break or from quietly and individually (not in groups of two or more) praying or meditating on a break"

"It restricts groups of two or more from engaging in religious practice"

I don't believe the owner means for this to be the case, but this feels mean, unjust, inappropriate, and probably illegal. We have been asked to sign an updated employment agreement that includes the language above, and let’s just say - I don’t feel good about. If you could help us with resources to provide to the owner to help our business remain fair and legal, I would really appreciate it.

Thanks so much for your assistance! You provide a great service.

First, the standard disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. I don't even watch Law & Order any more. I'm in protest since Jerry Orbach died (he played Lenny Briscoe, for you weirdos who don't love Jerry), and they brought Detective Fontana on board. (Yes, I know, Orbach left to do a spin off and then died. Fontana would be around even if he was still alive.) Hmmm, I think I'm digressing.

Here's a statement from the EEOC:
Employers must permit employees to engage in religious expression, unless the religious expression would impose an undue hardship on the employer. Generally, an employer may not place more restrictions on religious expression than on other forms of expression that have a comparable effect on workplace efficiency.

Now, before you print this out and take it to your boss, please note the following:

  • Your workplace has less than 10 employees. This generally means it's not subject to many of the rules larger workplaces are.
  • Even if it does apply, is it having an effect on workplace efficiency? Perhaps. You stated that in normal circumstances breaks are one at a time. Two at a time can affect workpalce efficiency.
  • If you were in there discussing the stock market, would your boss be equally upset?

  • I think your boss is unwise to have the policy he has. Rules designed to solve specific problems generally create new problems--as this one has. A better rule would have been, "one person at a time in the break/changing room." It would have solved the boss's perceived problem of his staff getting too religious and none of the employees would have felt singled out.

    So should you sign the agreement? Well, I honestly don't know whether it's legal or not. If it's not, and you sign, it's not enforceable in court anyway.

    What would happen if you didn't sign? Would you be fired? You could try talking to your boss. Ask him to explain his feelings. You may find out that he's concerned because breaks are taking longer and there is weeping going on, which makes him uncomfortable. You may find out that he thinks you are going to Hell for your crazy belief. You may find out that he's scared to death that the ACLU is going to show up at his doorstep if he allows this kind of behavior although he wishes he could join you. He may have had other employees come to him, complaining about how some of their co-workers are always involved in exclusionary religious discussions.

    Having less than 10 employees gives your boss more flexibilty than a larger employer, although I doubt he knows this. Try presenting him with the above quote from the EEOC and ask to have the language removed. Just say you are uncomfortable with it and that you understand the importance of hard work and want to do what is best for the business. Give him a reason why he should remove it--one that will be positive for the business.

    And, be careful that you aren't trying to convert your co-workers. It's okay to talk about your beliefs and your religion, but if others aren't interested, let it drop. You don't like feeling uncomfortable and neither do they.

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