In another forum, someone shared a story about a workplace incident. A colleague she didn’t know well who is also Mormon approached her and another Mormon colleague to ask if they wanted to go to the temple later in the week. She was surprised this person even knew she was LDS because they were not friends and had never discussed religion or much of anything else before. When she politely declined, the women started to badger her: “Do you go to church? Are you active? Do you even have a current temple recommend?” She stammered out a reply but felt frustrated and upset the rest of the day.
Asking someone to go to the temple is not in itself harassment or creating a hostile environment. Badgering them about why they don’t want to go may be, depending on the context. Because the women weren’t friends and because the first woman didn’t drop the subject when the other woman became uncomfortable, a line was crossed. According to the statute:
To establish a case of religious harassment, an employee must show that the harassment was: (1) based on his religion; (2) unwelcome; (3) sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment by creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment; and, (4) that there is a basis for employer liability.
We don’t usually think of religious hostile environment as occurring between two people who belong to the same church, but the statute does not make this distinction. While the remarks were unwelcome and based on religion, at this point, no pattern has been established, and the remarks may be considered severe (but probably not), but are not pervasive. There is not yet a basis for employer liability. However, individuals who don’t respect boundaries can go on to create a hostile work environment if nobody informs them their remarks are unwelcome or make them uncomfortable.
I found it interesting that several of the examples in the EEOC Compliance Manual refer to Mormons. Given that individuals who self-identify as Mormon only constitute 1.7% of the US Population, they constituted 4% of the examples in the government’s publication on religious hostile environment. I guess no press is bad press. Here are the examples used in the manual:
A Mormon as a victim of belittling remarks:
Persistent Offensive Remarks Constitute Hostile Environment
Betty is a Mormon. During a disagreement regarding a joint project, a co-worker, Julian, tells Betty that she doesn’t know what she is talking about and that she should “go back to Salt Lake City.” When Betty subsequently proposes a different approach to the project, Julian tells her that her suggestions are as “flaky” as he would expect from “her kind.” When Betty tries to resolve the conflict, Julian tells her that if she is uncomfortable working with him, she can either ask to be transferred, or she can “just pray about it.” Over the next six months, Julian regularly makes similar negative references to Betty’s religion. His persistent offensive remarks create a hostile environment.
The next example casts a Mormon in the position of creating a hostile environment:
Harassment by Co-Workers
John, who is a Christian Scientist, shares an office with Rick, a Mormon. Rick repeatedly tells John that he is practicing a false religion, and that he should study Mormon literature. Despite John’s protestations that he is very happy with his religion and has no desire to convert, Rick regularly leaves religious pamphlets on John’s desk and tries to talk to him about religion. After vainly asking Rick to stop the behavior, John complains to their immediate supervisor, who dismisses John’s complaint on the ground that Rick is a nice person who believes that he is just being helpful. If the harassment continues, the employer is liable because it knew, through the supervisor, about Rick’s harassing conduct but failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action.
Neither of these two examples make it clear (although the policy does in other examples) that it doesn’t matter whether the remarks are across different beliefs or within the same faith. The only standard is that the remarks are religious, unwelcome and pervasive.
So, what should you do if you are the recipient of unwelcome religious remarks? From the guide, here are the next steps you should take when a co-worker is creating a hostile environment for you with offensive remarks or proselyting (and the original example was both):
- Employees who are the recipients of unwelcome religious conduct should inform the individual engaging in the conduct that they wish it to stop. If the conduct does not stop, employees should report it to their supervisor or other appropriate company official in accordance with the procedures established in the company’s anti-harassment policy.
- Employees who do not wish to personally confront an individual who is directing unwelcome religious or anti-religious conduct towards them should report the conduct to their supervisor or other appropriate company official in accordance with the company’s anti-harassment policy.
My advice would be to nip an intrusive conversation about religion in the bud quickly if it meets the standard: 1) it’s unwelcome, 2) it’s offensive enough to cause a reasonable person to feel upset and distract them from work.
If I were the girl in question, I’d first talk to the third girl who was in the conversation to let her know that the conversation made me uncomfortable and that I am careful to keep work conversations professional which is why I don’t bring up religion at work with strangers. Who knows? She may feel likewise. If so, I would simply want to be sure that she doesn’t see me as a part of the harassing situation, that I am upholding the non-harassment environment.
Then I’d go to the one who put me on the spot and say “I wanted to let you know that yesterday when you came up to me to talk about religion at work it made me uncomfortable. I try not to bring religion into the workplace. I prefer to keep things on a professional level. I don’t feel we know one another well enough to have that kind of discussion, and even if we did, I would not do so on work premises because it’s personal and not work-related. The way you spoke to me, I felt badgered and violated, and it affected my ability to focus on my job yesterday. Thanks for respecting my boundaries in the future.” A reasonable person is going to back down when confronted with that kind of information. She obviously misread the situation, and now that I’ve illuminated her, she should know not to do it again.
If she tries it again, I’d add, “If this issue comes up again, I’ll need to talk to HR to be sure you understand what kinds of topics are appropriate for work discussions with me in future.”
In the original example, religious hostile environment hasn’t yet become actionable by the employer; it’s just one unwelcome incident. From the EEOC manual:
Beth’s colleague, Bill, repeatedly talked to her at work about her prospects for salvation. For several months, she did not object and discussed the matter with him. When he persisted even after she told him that he had “crossed the line” and should stop having non-work related conversations with her, the conduct was clearly unwelcome.
When the conduct doesn’t change after confrontation, that’s when it becomes pervasive and when a company may be liable if the behavior is allowed to continue.
Setting aside the implications of religious hostile environment in the workplace, if the conversation were not at work, but in a personal setting, I’d recommend saying “The way you spoke to me was upsetting. I don’t feel we are good enough friends for me to share that kind of personal, private information with you. If we were, I would have volunteered more information without you pressuring me. Please respect my privacy in future.”
Thinking back over my own career, I can think of a few religious hostile environment complaints or similar that I recall. Interestingly, the ones I can remember all happened in Utah, not at the same company.
- My visiting teachers had given me a calendar with pictures of religious art – little cherubs mostly. It’s not my cup of tea, but I needed a calendar, so I hung it up at my desk. There were two complaints made about it: 1) someone said I had put up a religious shrine at my desk, 2) someone complained about the cherub nudity. So I had the distinction of being accused of being both a religious fanatic and a heathen all due to the same calendar. Both complaints were deemed specious (according to the statute, having a shrine at your desk doesn’t constitute religious hostile environment and could be seen as religious accommodation), but an anonymous co-worker defaced the calendar by drawing little black shorts on the cherubs.
- An employee kept a copy of the Book of Mormon at his desk to read when he went on his lunch break. Another employee said that the book shouldn’t be in the work place. Since he was not proselyting, the complainant was told it was perfectly acceptable for anyone to read a religious book on their break; having it at work doesn’t create a hostile environment.
- A manager asked intrusive questions about his employee’s religious practices and told her that her lack of observance was why her child was sick. He persisted in asking intrusive personal questions, even after counseled that the employee had complained, until eventually his employment was terminated for hostile environment.
- A colleague said that a training activity violated his religious principles. He was released from participating in the activity. When I later participated in the training, they asked me if I needed to be excused since they knew we were both the same religion. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the religious objection was, so I participated in the activity. After, I asked my colleague who explained his objection, although he kind of laughed it off and said he probably mostly just wanted to get out of the activity.
What would you advise a person in the original situation? Have you found it a common experience for people to disrespect boundaries when it comes to religion or is this an isolated incident? How have you addressed issues like this if you felt someone was being intrusive? Have people of other faiths made you uncomfortable at work on the topic of religion? Have people of your shared faith made you feel uncomfortable?
I enjoyed this post. The most important take-away for me was the advise to be straightforward and clear about boundaries. I think we are often so afraid of giving offense that we sacrifice honesty. We can be honest and assertive without being rude. It’s especially unproductive (and damaging) to take offense at something and then walk around angry and upset instead of speaking up.
I’ve worked all over the U.S. and the subject of religion invariably comes up around the break table. I have enjoyed learning about Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christian denominations. In my experience, such exchanges are light-hearted and interesting. People will tell what they believe and others listen. It comes across as sharing, rather than proselytizing. I am fine with that.
I have worked in SLC, and there was a lot of religious talk in the workplace around Mormonism–maybe because being Mormon has such a strong influence on identity. Mormons (as a rule) seem extremely busy, have big families, are heavily invested in their families and activities, have relatively strict behavioral rules, and so forth. There was a certain amount of teasing around the office between Mormons and non-Mormons, but I didn’t see any offense. I remember, for example, a Mormon guy getting teased for trying to show a visitor how to operate the Keurig coffee maker.
I’ve never been bothered at all by a co-worker having religious articles sitting around. It’s individual expression. I am bothered when people in authority (managers, the front office, etc.) make a point of religious display. I once had a manager who what Bible verses written across the top of the whiteboard in his office. I would not object if he had a Bible on his desk, but the whiteboard thing bothered me. In SLC, I didn’t like it when the front office put up flyers for LDS fund-raising or volunteer activities without *saying* these were religious activities (probably because this would not be allowed). I once naively volunteered for an activity and wound up making packets of dried beans for an LDS food bank or something. The food might have benefitted non-LDS people, but I resented not being informed beforehand.
“If she tries it again, I’d add, “If this issue comes up again, I’ll need to talk to HR to be sure you understand what kinds of topics are appropriate for work discussions with me in future.”
This sounds much more hostile than the original overenthusiastic conversation about a shared religion.
My husband works for a large corporation outside UT. One time at an executive level dinner my husband’s boss pointed out (as he always does) that my husband won’t be drinking since he is Mormon, a newly hired executive, sitting a few seats away, asked my husband if he was going to inherit his own planet. My husband tried to deflect the question and then when the new hire persisted my husband asked him “why do you ask–are you a born-again” at which the new hire took great offense to. (He was, in fact, a born-again Christian). Three years later the new hire was fired (reasons unknown).
I find this page interesting on the newly created religious freedom site:
Curious about the suggestion of a fireman losing a job I did a little searching and found an example of a fire chief (in Georgia?) who was fired by the mayor for not pre-clearing the selling and publishing of a (religious )book. The fire chief had passed the book out to several firemen and eventually someone complained to the union.
It often blows my mind how socially inept Mormons can be outside of their comfortable, church context. They often have no clue how to act at non-lds weddingsand their tips/gifts tends to be stingy at best. It doesn’t surprise me at all that some would engage in the behavior that HG cites.
We need a commandment, “Thou shalt not be a jerk.”
KLC: Oh, it’s definitely going to sound more hostile, but a reasonable person will have already backed down at that point which means you’re dealing with an unreasonable one who doesn’t respect boundaries, not just someone with a mild case of bad manners.
Lois: I was at a business dinner with some other couples, and everyone was introducing her/himself one by one. When we got to one couple, the wife put her head down and said she believes she should be submissive so she was going to let her husband speak for her. That he was the one in charge of her. I was horrified. Her husband looked as proud as any three year old who had just pooped in the potty all by himself. I haven’t seen this kind of behavior in a work setting before. Very unsettling.
When I did work full-time, I found most people pretty respectful. Growing up in Utah I was part of the religious majority at school and work. Switching to a religious minority when we moved to Denver was eye-opening. Denver tends to have a very tolerant culture, though. There were only 2 other Mormons on a floor of a couple hundred, so I definitely stood out. If anything, people tended to avoid talking religion altogether, and some definitely were uncomfortable getting to know me (Apparently they thought all Mormons tried to convert people to their religion. Can’t imagine where they got that impression). Like anon observed, there was some teasing, but I never felt it was mean-spirited. There was one guy I tended to talk quite a bit of religion with (a retired military chaplain with family members who were LDS), but it was more a common intellectual interest for both of us. One time he was frustrated about something a family member did and asked me some pointed questions about our theology. I was startled, so I instinctively responded bluntly. Apparently that was exactly what he hoped I’d do and thanked me for my honesty. The only other notable encounter was a friend, after thumbing through a FSY booklet, aghast that Mormons didn’t view porn and wanting to confirm that I really had never seen certain images. I was too amused to be offended.
As far as the original example, I would’ve advised the person to get across that this was none of the other woman’s business. Even outside a work environment those questions are considered rude and intrusive in Mormon culture. The fact that it came from an “insider” makes it more offensive, not less. I would’ve had a hard time keeping composed and much less likely to open up to that coworker in the future.
Example 27 is interesting, because even though it is certainly hostile behavior, it is also exactly how many of us have been taught to act as “member missionaries”. I can’t tell you how many bishops, SPs, ward mission leaders, even young missionaries visiting my home have “challenged” me to take this same aggressive approach to sharing the gospel. “Open your mouth!” is a common phrase they use for this tactic; basically, harass your co-workers and neighbors day and night about the Church. I usually reply politely that I have to work/live with these people, and coexist peacefully; for the most part, they don’t constantly harangue me to join their respective faiths, so I don’t push mine on them, and we seem to get along pretty well.
I don’t think we consider how off-putting our missionary approach can be to others. Even the EEOC is aware enough to call it out.
I’m also concerned that the “proselyting as harassment” attitude put forth by this EEOC manual is partly fueling the recent fervor about religious liberty, especially as Elder Oaks’ current hobby horse. I get the impression from Oaks and others that they feel our religious freedom is being threatened when open proselyting in the workplace is prohibited or curtailed. From their privileged position, I don’t think they realize that rank-and-file Latter-day Saints who live outside of the Mountain Time Zone depend on these laws for protection from harassment and discrimination, especially where I live in the Bible Belt.
Unfortunately a lot of member proselytizing happens without a solid foundation. I’ve spent most of my life outside the Mountain Time Zone and have been on the receiving end of proselytizing and from my perspective it works best if you are a clips friend or a complete stranger. Close friends value our relationship even if I’m not going to repent of my evil Mormon ways and I value our relationship enough to respect that they are genuinely concerned over my eternal salvation and appreciate that they don’t push. In GC terms, they have made sure I know there is orange juice and I am welcome to pour myself a glass, but they won’t try to force it down my throat. Generally when I’ve been proselytized my strangers they have been nice and willing to accept that I may not be interested. I will also note that local churches seem to focus their efforts around events, one church has a big annual fundraiser for a food bank, another was going door to door to invite people to a presentation by a parenting expert on Christ-like parenting, etc. When at work, I will answer questions when asked and occasionally volunteer something without being asked if I think it’s appropriate, but I try not to push. For instance after my last Toastmasters club meeting (I know, not work) I shared a story from my time at BYU with two fellow members. To put the story in context, I explained that as part of the logistics of having 30,000 students who need to attend church on Sunday, most classrooms that are large enough are used as chapels and students are assigned to congregations based on where they live.
As for the situation described at the beginning of the OP, I would like to say wow. My initial reaction was maybe this person was new to the area and trying to make friends with other Mormons, but when I git to her reaction, that was completely inappropriate. Having had the opportunity to think about what I would say I think that I probably would have been stunned and made a remark about other plans or something, probably not the best. I do think that if this person keeps harassing her, it might be necessary to tell them to stop under threat of going to HR. And, honestly going to HR over this might be good for the Church’s reputation at that workplace as I find it easy to believe the harasser could get over zealous in trying to preach to non-Mormon coworkers. Another Mormon going to HR could signal that no, this behavior is not okay to other Mormons either.
I attend graduate school at a prestigious and high ranked institution. Spirituality/religion is passively denigrated. Of course, by living like i do- word of wisdom, and cautiously admitting to attending church services around holidays, word has leaked out that I am churchy, which has lead to uncomfortable conversations about bigotry and tolerance. A few other cautious christians have found me and whispered how hard it is to be religious in a godless institution. Interestingly enough, for the bit that I lived and worked in Utah, I also was very cautious about sharing my Mormonism, simply because it’s important for me to maintain professional boundaries.
When we do have missionaries over nowadays (and ugh, I forget how immature and pushy they are until they show up) I have to cautiously refuse to “challenge my coworkers” , or simply lie about proselyting at work/school. Same thing at church. Sorry elders quorum president, I won’t be recruiting my cohort of gay peers to the church for obvious reasons.
I worked for a company that had a group of Utahns relocated into it from an acquisition. The Utahns were all LDS and had their own manager (also LDS), so they were a bit insular, but after circling each other warily, the non-Mormons and Mormons got along fine. One of the non-Mormons, a guy named Bill with an evangelical wife, came into my cubicle during several lunch periods to ask me questions about Mormonism. I answered his questions and proselyted in the beginning (he wasn’t interested in converting), but mostly we just talked and explained our different outlooks. I couldn’t quite understand why Bill kept coming in, because he started saying the same things and it wasn’t as interesting any more, but I still talked to him. Next thing I knew, I was called into HR with my manager present and accused of creating a hostile work environment by my proselytizing. I was stunned. I had no idea what I could have done that could have led to such an accusation, since I was pretty sure Bill wasn’t upset with me. Since they wouldn’t tell me who accused me or exactly what I had done to create the hostile work environment, I asked them how I was supposed to fix the problem. They said it was simple — I wasn’t allowed to talk religion at work anymore, period. This was my first job out of school and I was already tempted to quit and do graduate school full-time, so I refused their terms. I told them that they could tell me what my unacceptable behavior was so I could fix it, but otherwise they had no right to forbid me from talking about religion and I refused to comply. I was upset, especially since the manager present was the LDS Utah transplant (I didn’t realize they wanted to make an example of me in front of him). The next time Bill came over to talk, I told him I’d gotten in trouble and didn’t feel like talking religion (Bill had grown tedious and the whole thing annoyed me). All was quiet for about a week, when another complaint was issued and I was called in again. This time, they explained that I was spending work time proselytizing and that people who needed to interact with me for work felt they couldn’t. I told them I hadn’t been proselytizing on work time (or at all, really) and that Bill had been coming to me to talk, and then only at lunch. Somebody must have made the executive decision that I wasn’t in the wrong, either because they actually liked me or because the guy doing the complaining had been causing other issues. I figured out who the complainer was and made a point to be friendly with him, but he got assigned to work with someone else. And, years later at another company, when his resume crossed my desk, it went straight into the trash.
Since then, I’ve been teased a fair amount for my religious beliefs by those who knew me, but it’s been mostly good-natured. I did have a guy make fun of Mormons and their magic underwear as we were assembling for a meeting. I think someone quietly told him I was one, because afterwards, he started in on creationists at the lunch table. He was pretty vehement, and I asked him why he was directing his diatribe at me. He said he wasn’t, it was just in general, and sputtered a bit when I suggested that there weren’t any creationists there to argue with, so he needn’t be so upset.