Religion in the Workplace
Since 9/11, many companies have been faced with this type of dilemma: “Do they allow a group of employees who wish to have access to office space (before and/or after work) for a bible study group to meet on-site – or – do they disallow any/all religious groups to use company property for non-business use?”
At the onset, particularly right after 9/11, most companies felt this was a reasonable request and wanted to support those employees who felt a need to pray, meditate and provide support to one another. Unfortunately, however, within the litigious secular society we live and work in, providing employees with office space to gather and study the bible is a dangerous precedent to set.
It may be dangerous to set the precedent of office space designated to the study of religion.
Why? Perhaps these two real-life examples will illustrate my point:
The first scenario involved a 200 person call center, which typically employs younger worker’s that often need coaching and mentoring on a variety of workplace issues such as how to dress appropriately.
Peter was a 26-year-old customer service rep that was never seen wearing anything other than black clothing. As a self-described “Goth,” Peter placed a couple of satanic artifacts around his workstation; although, because Peter was pleasant and a good performer, his manager assumed that his dress and artifact’s were simply part of Peter’s efforts to set himself apart from others; however, one day, he was confronted by two middle-aged female co-worker’s that stated they were “devout Christians” and, thus, “offended” by his attire and symbols and wanted them “removed from his workstation”.
As you might imagine, Peter replied that he was “offended” by their comments and asked that he be left alone. As a result, within an hour, HR was meeting with both parties behind closed doors in an attempt to resolve the issue in a quiet and respective manner for all concerned. During these “behind the door” sessions it was revealed that both women had church calendars posted in their respective cubicles and, by observation, it was also evident that both women wore necklaces with Christ on the cross.
While there were other details pertaining to this “dilemma” that one party or the other found to be offensive, the end result was pretty drastic for any work environment. Following consultation with their General Counsel, it was determined that every article of clothing, calendar and/or piece of jewelry that contained any religious artifacts or symbols – including crosses, insignias, all Christmas and Holiday decorations – had to be removed from the workplace due to the fact that someone might, could or would find it offensive.
My second example occurred about two-years ago in the offices of a local financial services organization. Specifically, a group of employees sent a formal written request to the Manager of HR requesting that they are given access to an empty conference room (before work) for a bible study group to meet. Moreover, in an effort to “get the word out” they also requested that a notice of these weekly meetings be put up on the company’s intranet so that other interested individuals could join them and take part.
In this particular scenario, the employer in question had a three or four other loose-knit “employee clubs” such as a bowling team and a softball team/sports club that, while not sanctioned or sponsored by the company, were routinely given access to conference facilities upon request. Obviously, this situation presented a complex set of circumstances to consider due to the fact that there was a precedent for the company allowing employee groups to meet on-site during non-business hours.
Within a short time, the company had decided that a posting on the intranet was definitely inappropriate, as it would be perceived that the company was sponsoring, or at the very least fostering, a specific religion or set of beliefs. As for the second part of their request (to have access to conference facilities before work), their General Counsel advised them that they would have to grant them this request due to the fact that other employee clubs were using the same conference facilities; however, this obviously meant that any other religious group, employee club or loosely knit gathering of employees that requested the same accommodation in the future would have to be given the same access as the bowling team, the bible study group, and the softball team.
Therefore, after much consternation, the company concluded that – going forward – no employee groups or clubs would be provided office space to meet on-site. Accordingly, the President notified everyone employed by the company that their respective group(s) or club(s) would not be permitted to meet on-site before, during or after work hours. However, in an attempt to work out some sort of exception or compromise, the bible study group came back to the HR Manager and indicated that they would like to meet outside, under a tree, but still on work premises, during their lunch hour and asked if this would be ok?
So, is all company property out of the question when it comes to religion in the workplace?
While a company can’t realistically prevent employees from eating and/or meeting under a tree to socialize when they were “off the clock” during their lunch break, the General Counsel personally met with the leader’s of the bible study group and explained that, while he supported and was even considering joining their group, if they met on company property the company would be forced to allow any other group(s) the same access – even the KKK. He further explained that allowing employee groups and/or teams access to any company property was “an all or nothing scenario” and, as a lawyer, he had to advise the company to disallow access by all groups. Fortunately, after this meeting, the subject was dropped and all of the groups in question found places to meet off-site.
Again, at the onset, allowing groups to meet on company property seems like a reasonable request and, in some instances, is actually something companies want to promote and foster to build friendships and “all for one” team spirit; however, the potential long-term consequences in this “politically correct” and highly charged “litigious” environment is just not something most lawyers (and HR Consultants) would recommend or sign-off on in spite of the fact that they might personally want to be involved in such a group themselves.
For additional information on religion in the workplace, I’d recommend that you check out this site:
If you like help in drafting a specific policy or procedure, please call me and let’s discuss: 773-807-8437
Mike Russell is a seasoned professional with three decades of experience in the fields of HR and OD. In addition to having a career trajectory of HR Generalist to a VP within ten years, Mike also has a long and successful background as a Consultant/Business Partner to CEO’s, Presidents and Executive Directors in both the private and non-profit communities across a wide spectrum of industries.
As the sole-proprietor and owner of Organizational Development Solutions (ODS), Mike partners with business leaders committed to insulating their organization(s) from potential liability, increasing organizational effectiveness and adding shareholder value.