IN THE WORKPLACE
The Alliance for Magical and Earth Religions (AMER) has prepared the
following excellent list of recommendations to cover instances of
religious harassment in the workplace. It was written to help followers
of Magical and Earth-centered religions in the US workplace. But it may be useful to
other victims of harassment everywhere. Note that laws in different states and
different countries may differ from that described below. It is not intended to
be legal advice. For that, you should consult your lawyer.
Some day you may be harassed because of your religion:
Someday you may be fired from a job because someone doesn't like
your religion. You may have co-workers who constantly harass you, or try
to convert you to their religion. Perhaps a supervisor will express
disapproval of your religion or make it clear to you that you would
get better treatment if both of you shared the same faith.
If this or any other form of religious discrimination or
harassment ever happens to you, then you will be faced with a difficult
set of decisions, starting with this: what do you want? Do you just want
the harassment to stop? Do you want a transfer? If you were fired, do
you want your old job back? Do you want the harassers disciplined?
Should you try for compensation for lost wages or other damages?
Harassment and discrimination defined:
Before you can make these decisions, you need to understand the
law about discrimination and harassment. There is no official definition
of harassment, but it can be described as being singled out because of
your religion for mistreatment, particularly if it makes it harder to do
your job. If you are harassed by your superiors, this is discrimination.
U.S. eorkers employed "At Will:"
According to a 19th Century Supreme Court ruling, commonly called
"Employment at Will," your employer may hire, fire, promote, or demote
you at any time, for any reason , and without stating a reason, unless
you have a written contract that states otherwise. There are generally
four exceptions to this:
- for your age, gender, ethnic or national
origin, religion or any other reason mentioned in the civil rights acts;
- for filing workplace safety complaints as covered by the Occupational
Safety & Health Act;
- for attempting to organize a union, protected by
the National Fair Labor Practices Act; or
- for any disability protected
under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The burden of proof is on you:
However, because your employer does not have to give a reason for
his or her action, the burden is on you to prove that you were fired,
mistreated, or not hired was for one of the reasons given above.
Interview? Say "I prefer not to discuss religion at work:"
What should you do if you are asked questions about religion,
either on a job application or during an interview? You should remember
that there is no legal reason for an employer to ask you this; we suggest
that you leave that field blank, or if asked, answer only, "I prefer not
to discuss religion at work"--and then stick to it. If they don't hire
you, you may have a perfect case for a religious discrimination lawsuit,
so contact the nearest office of the Equal Employment Opportunities
Commission (EEOC) or equivalent agency immediately.
Collect, preserve any evidence:
In the event you are fired or harassed on the job, unless you can
produce documentation that can be presented in court that your mis-treatment
was religious discrimination or harassment, you do not have a case.
Therefore, if you think there is any risk that your employment situation
may lead to a lawsuit or formal complaint, the most important thing you
can do is to collect and preserve evidence.
Take notes in a spiral-bound notebook:
Buy a spiral-bound notebook, and after every incident that you
consider to be harassment or discrimination, discreetly write down the
name of the person who harassed you, where and when it happened, what
they did or said, and the names of everyone who saw or heard it. It
would be sensible to keep the existence of this notebook private.
If you can do so without calling attention to it, you might want
to use a tape recorder. In most states, it is legal to tape any conversation
that you're part of. If you do end up in court, your attorney will determine
whether or not your tapes can be used as evidence.
Always get copies of your personnel file:
Whether or not you are being harassed now, try to get a copy of your
personnel file at least once a year. You may have no actual right to a copy,
but many employers will give you one if you ask. After all, if you have
received favorable reviews until your religious trouble started, it might
help to be able to prove it.
Co-workers may not be trying to hurt you:
In most cases, the people you work with are not really trying to
hurt your feelings or make you angry. They probably just don't know any
better. They may be trying to make a joke or convert you to their point of
view. Many people are simply more comfortable around persons who share
their value system.
If you quietly and privately explain what they have said or done
that offended you, and how it made you feel, they'll probably stop. You
need to be discreet and speak to them alone, with no one else around.
Will a little gentle humor lower the tension?
If the situation becomes tense, consider a little gentle humor to
lower the tension. Try not to embarrass them or put them on the defensive.
It is better to act hurt than angry. If you are accused of having no sense
of humor, ask them for example, if they would tell gas chamber jokes or
Holocaust jokes to Jews.
DON'T gossip, gloat, or argue religion:
Remember, your complaint is with that person alone. No matter how
tempted you are, don't complain to your co-workers about your treatment.
If the offender apologizes, don't gloat. It is important to treat any apology
as sincere. You must also remember that you are not trying to get into
theology discussions, but rather to stop any harassment. The issue here is
harassment, not whose religion is "better" or more "right."
If informal means fail, consider a formal complaint:
Most disputes can be resolved through such informal means. If,
however, all of your attempts to work things out in a reasonable, adult
manner have failed, then you may want or need to appeal to a higher
Winning won't guarantee you a pleasant place to work:
If informal discussions do not resolve the matter then you have a
difficult decision to make. As soon as you start a formal complaint the
atmosphere is going to get much more unpleasant. If you think you can
find work elsewhere or if you can endure the present situation, you might
be better off doing so. The law may be on your side but winning a formal
complaint or lawsuit won't guarantee you a pleasant place to work.
Of course, if you don't challenge religious discrimination or
harassment, it will keep happening. This is a decision that nobody can
make for you.
Go to your supervisor or to personnel. Don't go over your boss's head:
If you are going to file a harassment complaint about a co-worker,
the first formal conversation should be with your supervisor. If you need
to file a harassment complaint about your supervisor, your conversation
should be with Personnel or Human Resources. Don't jump the chain of
command and go over your boss's head.
If your supervisor wasn't very helpful, see if your company has a
policies and procedures manual, and then follow its advice on how to file
a complaint. If not, ask to see whoever is in charge of personnel.
When in doubt, go to them--it is their job to assist you.
If you are in a union, talk to your union rep:
There is an important exception to the previous two paragraphs:
if you are a member of a union, your contract may provide you with specific
rights, remedies and procedures to follow. In this case your first
conversation should be with your shop steward or other union representative.
Call the EEOC before the 300 day deadline:
If it has been nearly 300 days since you were last harassed or
discriminated against and you still have received no satisfaction through
informal or corporate channels, call the nearest office of the United States
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and explain your situation to
an investigator. Ask the investigator for advice. If he or she recommends
that you file a formal complaint, ask whether you need to file separately
with your state's equivalent of the EEOC.
You do not have to wait until the corporate procedures have been
exhausted. In most cases there is a 300 day deadline for filing a complaint
with the EEOC or state agency.
Use informal means, formal complaint, and EEOC first!
If you have not exhausted informal means, made a reasonable attempt
at using corporate remedies, gone completely through the EEOC's procedures
and their complete appeals process, then filing a lawsuit would be futile.
Now you need a lawyer if you're going to go on:
If you have reached this point and gotten no relief, you must retain
a lawyer if you want to go any further. You and your lawyer need to determine
what your objectives will be in filing a lawsuit.
Remember, you are not entitled to the free services of an attorney
even if you have been fired from your job. You are filing the complaint,
and your employer is the defendant. And remember: because the employer is
the defendant, the burden of proof is on you!
Help finding a lawyer:
If you need help finding an attorney contact your state's Bar
Association's Lawyer Referral Service which is listed in the phone book.
You may also wish to consult such organizations as your local
chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union which should also be listed
in the phone book.
IMPORTANT: Report actual threats to the police!
It is important to note that if at any time during the resolution
process, either formal or informal, the harassment escalates to the point
of assault, physical threats, slashed tires, stalking, or anything else
where a reasonable person would fear for their safety, you must call the
police! This has now gone beyond the realm of harassment into criminal
activity. Don't feel embarrassed about calling the police for something
that started out with a joke or whatever. A well-timed complaint could
save your life.
Feel free to contact AMER for general advice and support in the
early stages of your dispute and please keep us up to date on your case's
You can reach AMER at our voice mail box, (314) 994-1026 or by writing to:
Alliance for Magical and Earth Religions
P.O. Box 16551
Their electronic mail liaison is Chris Carlisle
The AMER Guide to Handling Religious Harassment at Work is copyright © 1993 by the
Alliance for Magical and Earth Religions. Permission is granted to reprint this document in its
entirety. All other rights reserved.