Do you have overtly religious employees in your workplace? The EEOC says you must “reasonably accommodate” their religious beliefs and practices. But you can (and should) step in when that religious zeal crosses the line into religious harassment. Just make sure you treat all employees consistently—or you’ll be praying for the lawsuit to go away…
Case In Point: The University of Texas at Arlington has a written policy that protects employees' freedom of speech and promises not to discriminate on the basis of an expressed religious viewpoint. The university lets employees pray, express their beliefs openly and have religious objects on their desks.
But, apparently, the university draws the line at exorcisms.
Doug Maples was having problems getting along with a co-worker, Evelyn Knight, whom he described as a “really mean person.” So two of Maples’ female co-workers stepped in to help.
One day after work, the two co-workers and Maples went to Knight’s cubicle. One of the co-workers rubbed oil on the cubicle doorway, then she prayed and chanted loudly, “I command you demons to leave [Knight], you vicious evil dogs get the hell out of here in the name of Jesus, get the hell out of [Knight].” Maples allegedly joined the ceremony by saying “amen” and “yes, Lord.” Knight wasn’t at her cubicle at the time. No oil stain appeared.
When HR found out about the incident, it investigated and eventually fired the two female co-workers. Maples wasn’t fired. The two co-workers sued for religious discrimination.
The university contended that the pair were properly terminated for harassing behavior and property damage. The two argued there was no property damage because there was no oil stain and, more importantly, they were being treated differently than Maples, who also participated in the prayer.
The result: The court last month refused to dismiss the case at summary judgment phase. Instead, it sent the case to a jury, noting that all three employees were involved in the incident but only two were fired. If that isn’t a sign of religious discrimination, Lord knows what is. (Shatkin v. University of Texas at Arlington, N.D. Tex., 7/9/10).
2 Lessons Learned … Without Going to Court
1. DITO DITA: Do It To One, Do It To All
2. … Or, get sued for discrimination.
Note: For more information on what the EEOC considers illegal religious discrimination—and how far you must go to offer a religious accommodation—go to www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/religion.cfm.
- How to Fire an Employee the Legal Way: 6 Termination Guidelines
- 10 Secrets to an Effective Performance Review
- When you learn of possible harassment, investigate promptly, take fast action
- Remind bosses: Reference check calls go to HR
- Recruit managers as allies before pitching that HR project
- Courts reluctant to make losing employees pay for employers' legal fees