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?