Can you spot the hypocrite?

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in Your Office Coach

Question:  "I’m not sure how to handle a new employee whose religious beliefs prevent her from acknowledging Christmas, Easter, Valentine's Day, or birthdays. In our small business, the owners have always encouraged us to celebrate these holidays. This employee won’t attend our office Christmas party, but she accepts the Christmas card that contains her annual bonus.  She doesn't recognize Easter or Valentine’s, but she eats the candy that the owners give us. She leaves the room when we celebrate birthdays, then later goes back to get a piece of cake. This behavior upsets her coworkers, who are starting to act very resentful towards her. They feel that she’s being hypocritical and that if she’s not going to celebrate, she should refuse the gifts and treats. The employee says that when she was hired, she told the owners she would not be able to participate in holiday celebrations. But now the rest of us feel really down, because we are having to change for her."  — Nan

Answer:  Let me get this straight.  You’re angry because your co-worker follows her religious beliefs, accepts her year-end bonus, and eats leftover cake.  Doesn't that sound a little petty to you?

Since you don't say otherwise, I assume that this woman does her job effectively, which is all that really counts.  However, her presence has altered your familiar and comfortable office culture. Feeling uneasy about this change is understandable, but attacking your new colleague is childish and deplorable.  

If you worked for a company with Jewish or Muslim owners, how would you react if they required participation in their holiday celebrations? And if you declined for religious reasons, how would you feel if your coworkers ostracized you?

In reality, the rest of you don’t have to “change for this one person." You can keep right on celebrating. The truth is that you want her to change by violating her religious beliefs. This is not only unfair to her, but also legally hazardous for your employers.  

To develop a more accepting attitude, this immature office staff needs leadership and guidance from a mature, professional adult. Perhaps that person could be you.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Deborah August 7, 2011 at 2:51 pm

As a former non-participating employee, thank you.

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Deborah August 7, 2011 at 2:50 pm

A few years ago, I was in “that person”. I did not give my permission for my birthday to be included in the monthly birthday pool. I took a personal day off when the office had their Halloween party (with all the short short costumes). When asked if they could decorate my space to try to win the office decorating contest, I said yes, but no santas or trees. They decorated my space with snowflakes. All the “extras” that go on outside of work are just that, extras. And everyone should be able to pick and choose what extra activities they participate in.

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I have a sweet tooth too June 22, 2011 at 12:05 pm

Eating leftover cake (or candy "the owner gives us") is not the same as "celebrating" a religion! In my view celebrating is things like: participating in the Eurcharist, keeping kosher, fasting, wearing a head covering or burka, praying 5 times a day, etc. I remember in 1st grade a Jewish friend bringing in sample holiday food for us to show us how she celebrated…we ate potato latkes and flat bread and learned about her faith… was that "celebrating"?
Coworkers shouldn't decide which of her religious customs they believe are important to her …so yes, she can pick and choose! That's between her and her God. I know Catholics who eat meat on Fridays but still "celebrate" their religion on Sundays … so that is "picking and choosing" too. If you say, for example, "You're Christian, so no, this or that, period" you'll inevitably fail because all humans are imperfect creatures …which is why we constantly need forgiveness for our sins. So, if she has a sweet tooth, let her eat cake!

Most Americans visiting Saudi Arabia think it is odd that "religious police" chase and literally beat you with sticks if you take a jog in shorts because you are showing your legs… so we wouldn't join the police in enforcing such a rule if we spotted a violator! Instead we thank God (religious humor there) that in America we have the legal right to religious freedom.

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Sandi June 21, 2011 at 1:24 pm

I have to disagree with both responses above. If you don’t celebrate these events, then you don’t celebrate them, period. If she participates in eating the cake and candy, then she is participating in the event. She is picking and choosing what she participates in. The end of year bonus shouldn’t have anything to do with religion so I believe she should accept that. If someone were celebrating a Muslim or Jewish event that I didn’t want to participate then I wouldn’t eat the cake, candy, etc. That to me, is participating.

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Lisa Totin June 17, 2011 at 11:03 am

Agreeing with Marie’s advice, I was totally ready to add a few additional remarks about tolerance, judging morality, and workplace appropriateness. However, the writer is asking for help, even if her words show that she’s not exactly thrilled at this relatively small sliver of diversity in her organization. She has a workplace situation, and I think she knows, at some level, they aren’t handling it correctly.
I like Marie’s anology to Muslim or Jewish religious observances. Most Americans would be very uncomfortable observing Ramadan’s daytime fasts, for example, even if the Muslim employer offered free sundown feasts. Likewise, there is no reason for a Christian to be offended that a coworker refrains from traditional Christian celebrations.
As long the non-participating employee isn’t criticizing others for choosing to celebrate, I think the better question is: Why is anyone upset that she’s abstaining? Do they get angry with the people who fail to show at the company picnic?

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Susan June 15, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Wow. This is one of those lessons from "Everything I needed to learn I learned in Kindergarten" You can't even call the co-workers "childish" because children wouldn't behave this way! Your average kindergartener would want to bring her a piece of cake to eat at her desk saying something like, "I'm so sorry you can't join us at the party, but would you like a piece of cake?"

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