Here’s an important reminder for all managers and supervisors: If the workplace becomes a battleground over employee religious beliefs, count on a lawsuit.
Simply put, deriding someone’s religion or religious practices can create a hostile environment.
The best policy: Keep religion out of the workplace as much as possible. After all, we’re here to work.
Recent case: Jesus Suarez, a park construction foreman, is a devout Roman Catholic. One of his most cherished possessions was a rosary Pope John Paul II had personally blessed just a week before he died.
Suarez’s religious beliefs apparently bothered his supervisor and co-workers. Suarez claimed they constantly criticized his beliefs, told him “the devil was in him” and said it was a sin to be sick or poor. In addition, Suarez said co-workers put dead rats in his truck.
Then Suarez’s cherished rosary disappeared, and his supervisor had been heard to say that the rosary “doesn’t belong here.”
Suarez sued, alleging he had been forced to work in a religiously hostile environment.
The court considered the two things employees have to show when trying to prove a hostile environment:
- The employee believed the workplace was subjectively abusive.
- The workplace was objectively abusive.
The court said Suarez had shown both, based on his supervisor’s and co-workers’ behavior. (Suarez v. Nueces County, No. C-08-217, SD TX, 2009)
Final note: Remember that the law defines religion broadly. It covers not just major religious groups such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam, but includes other genuinely held but less mainstream beliefs, too.
- Investigate even when employee complains belatedly
- Don't sugarcoat reason for termination
- Time for a snap inspection: Make sure bulletin boards don't show signs of bias
- Don't believe it: Employee facing discipline can't quit and then claim constructive discharge
- Handle criminal inquiry with care, sensitivity