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Think co-worker religious bias wasn’t serious? Don’t bet on courts taking such a casual view

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Earlier this year, we told you about a North Carolina religious har­ass­ment case that was dismissed because the judge felt the alleged har­assment wasn’t serious enough to warrant a lawsuit. (See “Not every­one wears a halo: Courts don’t expect per­fect work environment.”)

The EEOC asked the court to re­consider its decision and it did, order­ing the lawsuit reinstated.

Recent case: Brenda Thompson is a lifelong Christian and worked for T-N-T Carports until she quit over alleged religious harassment at the hands of her co-workers. Her employer, she claimed, essentially ­ignored her complaints and told her to just walk away.

The trouble began when Thomp­son got a promotion that another co-worker thought should have gone to someone else. Thompson said that from the time she was promoted to the day she quit, she was constantly exposed to snide comments about her Christianity. For example, co-workers would ask her whether she belonged to a cult or worshipped the devil. Then someone took a marker to a photograph in Thompson’s cubi­cle, scrawling devil horns and a tail on the people in the photo celebrating Christmas. Finally, a co-worker picked up a copy of the Bible and slammed it to the ground.

Over the weeks that the harassment lasted, Thompson frequently complained to managers. But each time she was informed that she should simply ignore her co-workers. Instead, she quit and went to the EEOC.

The court initially dismissed the case because it didn’t feel the behavior was religiously motivated or severe enough to create a hostile environment. Then the EEOC asked the court to reconsider.

When it did, the judge concluded that the underlying reason for the harassment against Thompson was rooted in her faith and that the employer may not have done enough to stop the harassment when she complained. It didn’t matter that the har­assment itself was prompted by the promotion. What mattered was that the co-worker behavior in question centered on denigrating Thompson’s religious beliefs. The case now goes to trial. (EEOC v. T-N-T Carports, No. 1:09-CV-27, MD NC, 2011)

Final note: Include handling religious discrimination in your management and supervisor training sessions. Remind them to report any incidents to HR. Then follow through with the affected employee to see if the behavior stopped.

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