‘Energy circles’ and Tibetan teachings: Enforcing new-age spirituality at work triggers old-school lawsuit

Question: Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction. That’s certainly true with the, um, “unique” religious discrimination case that comes to us this month from America’s heartland. The case hammers home a clear lesson: It’s never appropriate for company leaders to force employees to adhere to certain religious practices—even quasi-religious “spiritual” events.

Case in Point: When the owner of a Nebraska log-home company wanted to improve employee performance, old-fashioned training wasn’t enough. Instead, he required employees to attend Mind-Body Energy (MBE) seminars so they could “cleanse the negative energy” from their past lives. The company employed MBE coaches—including one who claimed to speak with animals—and required employees to read Tibetan and Buddhist teachings. The HR director (the owner’s wife) kept a log of employees’ attendance at the MBE coaching sessions.

On one occasion, the owner tried to remove the negative energy from a subdivision by requiring employees to stand in a circle holding hands. Employees had to carry cards that identified the company’s values, including “spirituality and leaving behind all experiences from past lives.”

To question employees and make business decisions, the owner sometimes used a spiritual technique called “muscle testing.” How does it work? Employees would extend their arms while answering a question while the owner pushed down on their arms. If the arms resisted, the answer to the question was “yes,” if the arms could be pushed down, it was “no.”

Anyway, sales rep Doyle Ollis didn’t take to this. He stopped going to the MBE meetings and protested the spiritual stuff. Soon after, Ollis was accused of sexual harassment. The owner investigated via “muscle testing” questioning. Ollis failed and was fired.

Understandably enough, Ollis sued for religious discrimination, saying he was retaliated against for his objections on account of his Protestant Christian beliefs. (Ollis v. HearthStone Homes, No. 06-2852, 8th Cir., 2007)

How did the case end … and what lessons can be learned?

A jury ruled in Ollis’ favor and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the ruling, saying Ollis’ termination was predicated by his refusal to jump on the spiritual bandwagon.

But you may be surprised to learn that Ollis didn’t reap any big windfall. In fact, the jury only awarded him $1 for his trouble. Why? It may have something to do with that sexual harassment complaint.

A subordinate female employee had complained that Ollis asked her provocative questions about her “freakiest” sexual encounters, her thong underwear and how many sexual partners she had.

Ollis admitted he’d crossed the line. But he argued that the female employee initiated some of the banter, a fact given more credence after the woman was later terminated for removing her clothes at a golf outing and doing naked cartwheels on the golf course. No word on whether she was simply trying to cleanse her negative energy.

Lessons learned: While it’s perfectly fine to encourage employees to follow certain Judeo-Christian values at work, such as cooperation, honesty and kindness, it’s never OK to require adherence to a particular religion or religious practices.

Even if your organization’s leaders have strong religious beliefs, it must accommodate workers who don’t agree with that stance. That may mean excusing employees from company prayer groups or other religious-based activities.