Q: I work for a small municipal government agency. During the work year we have four to five meetings that are held at lunch, either to discuss work, to conduct staff training or for employee recognition events. All are held on government property.
Each of these meals is preceded by prayers, led by our department head, who is aspiring to become a Baptist minister. We're not talking nondenominational prayer. It starts off "In Jesus's name we pray," then goes into talk about forgiving us for sin and saving us from hell. He comments to the group on whether the workers who get awards are Christians or not.
It makes me very uncomfortable, and I imagine that it makes my Jewish co-workers uncomfortable too. How I wish this were a joke. Do you have any advice for me?
This is one of those places where our most cherished constitutional protections can appear to be in conflict. First, there's the matter of separation of church and state. But then there's another, equally important principle: freedom of religion. One person's freedom is another's oppression.
We took your question to three experts: Lewis Maltby, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's workplace rights project; C. Ben Mitchell, a Christian ethicist who teaches aspiring pastors at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill.; and Elaine Herskowitz, a senior staff lawyer in the office of legal counsel at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the government agency that enforces laws banning religious discrimination in the workplace. All three agreed that your supervisor has almost, but not quite, crossed the line in mixing religion and work.
They suggest telling your boss that the prayer sessions are making you uncomfortable and that you would like them to stop. Because you haven't spoken up, and presumably no one else has either, there's a chance the supervisor is oblivious to his workers' discomfort.
"This supervisor may have no inkling," Herskowitz said. "He's simply affirming his belief and may believe other people share his views."
While this is risky--after all, the boss might retaliate--it could prove crucial if you decide at some point to take legal action, the experts said. A key issue in such cases is whether the person who is offended complained but the problematic behavior continued. Another important factor is whether people who shared the boss's religious views got promoted or received better pay raises than people who didn't.
Some experts said the supervisor may believe his faith requires him to proselytize and try to reach out to nonbelievers.
"I would applaud his zeal in seeing other people come to faith in Christ," Mitchell said, but he suggested that your boss needs to limit his preaching to outside of work or in his office with others who share his beliefs.
"Because he is a supervisor and people are required to be there at the meetings, he's not respecting other people's religious beliefs," Mitchell said.
Q: We have had a very sensitive problem at work. We are a small medical office with two physicians and seven support staff. One of our employees, a medical secretary, learned her fiance had been intimate recently with the receptionist here, whom he met because the two women work together. The medical secretary, who performs well and has a good attitude, wanted to resign because she didn't feel she could work here any longer. We encouraged her to stay, but she missed some work. The other employee quit several days later.
This problem has been very disruptive to our office. We weren't sure how to handle the situation, and there wasn't anyone who could help us because we don't have a human resources person. The doctors weren't sure what to do either. Any ideas?
Ain't love grand?
This problem reminded Deborah Keary, manager of the Society for Human Resource Management's information center, of a call she handled recently. A man and a woman working together in a small branch office of a large insurance company had a torrid affair. Then they broke up, but the man couldn't let go and the woman got a restraining order that forbade him to come within 500 feet of her--a big problem in an office that was only about 50 feet by 50 feet. They had to let the man work from home until things cooled down.
"It's very difficult when things go badly," Keary said. "No one ever talks about it, but they should. Though I shouldn't talk--I met my husband at work."
Keary says having an employee handbook that spells out appropriate workplace behavior can often help in these situations.
Some possible language Keary offers:
"The employer expects all employees to display the common courtesy that shows respect for the dignity and privacy of all staff members. Behavior in the workplace should be appropriate to the situation, professional and businesslike. Racial or ethnic slurs, provocative comments, threats, and physical violence or aggression of any kind are examples of unacceptable behaviors. Any involvement in behavior that disrupts the office, or physically, verbally or otherwise compromises the safety and well-being of the staff will not be tolerated and will be met with disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment."