Caution: God at Work

Tread carefully when religious values enter the workplace.

November 01, 2010
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An applicant for a front-line position wears a religious head-covering. A longtime employee repeatedly shares views on salvation with a newcomer who seems uncomfortable with the conversations. Or a few employees request space to meet for prayer during the business day. Do you know what to do?
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits religious discrimination regardless of whether the views in question are mainstream or nontraditional—and even if they’re not recognized by any organized religion. That’s according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) new Compliance Manual on Religious Discrimination, issued July 22, 2008. These protections extend to those professing no religious beliefs.
Title VII covers credit unions with 15 or more employees. It also prohibits retaliation against individuals who oppose religious discrimination or who file or testify in support of a complaint.
Religious discrimination has two major categories:
1. Disparate treatment violates Title VII whether the difference is motivated by bias against or preference toward an applicant or employee due to religious beliefs, practices, or observances—or lack thereof.
2. Harassment violates Title VII when an employer requires or coerces employees to abandon, alter, or adopt a religious practice as a condition of employment. Or someone (such as a co-worker, member, or supervisor) subjects employees to unwelcome, religious-based statements or conduct so severe or pervasive that it constitutes a hostile work environment and there’s a basis for holding the employer liable.
Title VII also requires reasonably accommodating employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances, once on notice. Applicants or employees merely must provide enough information to raise awareness of a conflict between the religion and the application process or job duties.
Accommodation involves adjusting a neutral work rule that infringes on employees’ ability to practice their religion—so individuals aren’t forced to choose between their jobs and their religious convictions. The credit union must provide an accommodation so long as it doesn’t impose more than a minimal cost or burden on business operations.
The EEOC recommends establishing written, objective criteria for evaluating candidates for hire or promotion and applying those criteria consistently. In interviews, all applicants for a job or job category should answer the same questions that relate directly to the position. You can reduce religious discrimination claims by careful and timely recording of the accurate business reasons for disciplinary or performance-related actions and by explaining these reasons to affected employees.
EEOC also recommends having a well-publicized, consistently applied antiharassment policy covering religious harassment that:
  • Explains what’s prohibited;
  • Describes procedures for bringing harassment to management’s attention; and
  • Assures complainants the employer will protect them against retaliation.
The procedures should include a complaint mechanism offering multiple avenues for complaint; prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations; and prompt, appropriate corrective action.
Allow religious expression to the same extent you allow other types of personal expression. But never permit harassing and disruptive expression. Once you know employees object to religious conduct directed at them—even if it doesn’t seem abusive to others—take steps to end it. If members or other nonemployees are perpetrating harassment, take action to stop it.
To prevent conflicts from escalating to Title VII violations, immediately intervene when management learns of abusive or insulting conduct—even absent a complaint.
Train managers to intervene if there’s reason to believe others might view a religious expression as harassing. Supervisors must avoid expression that subordinates reasonably might perceive as coercive.
The compliance manual and related resources are on the EEOC’s Web site,
KAREN SAUL is of counsel at Farleigh Wada Witt, Portland, Ore. Her practice focuses on employment law.

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Great article! Unfortunately, most employees don’t feel valued or appreciated by their supervisors or employers. In fact, research has shown that the predominant reason team members quit their jobs is because they don’t feel valued. This is in spite of the fact that employee recognition programs have proliferated in the workplace – over 90% of all organizations in the U.S. has some form of employee recognition activities in place. But most employee recognition programs are viewed with skepticism and cynicism – because they aren’t viewed as being genuine in their communication of appreciation. Getting the “employee of the month” award, receiving a certificate of recognition, or a “Way to go, team!” email just don’t get the job done. How do you communicate authentic appreciation? We have found people have different ways that they want to be shown appreciation, and if you don’t communicate in the language of appreciation important to them, you essentially “miss the mark”. Additionally, employees need to receive recognition more than once a year at their performance review. Otherwise, they view the praise as “going through the motions”. A third component of authentic appreciation is that the communication has to be about them personally – not the department, not their group, but something they did. Finally, they have to believe that you mean what you say. How you treat them has to match the words you use. If you are not sure how your team members want to be shown appreciation, the Motivating By Appreciation Inventory ( will identify the language of appreciation and specific actions preferred by each employee. You then can create a group profile for your team, so everyone knows how to encourage one another. Remember, employees want to know that they are valued for what they contribute to the success of the organization. And communicating authentic appreciation in the ways they desire it can make the difference between keeping your quality team members or having a negative work environment that everyone wants to leave. Paul White, Ph.D., is the co-author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace with Dr. Gary Chapman.

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