Religion in the Workplace

By Paula Santonocito

cross of christ built into a brick wallQ. I manage an office of 15 or so diverse people. There are a few people in offices, and the rest are in cubicles. One employee who is in an office has become deeply religious, and her walls, desk, and any other surface have become a shrine to Jesus. She’ll be offended if I ask her to remove her biblical verses and posters, yet I think it is inappropriate in a work setting. How should I handle this display of faith?

A. You don’t say if your office is part of a larger company. If you are overseeing a satellite location, your corporate headquarters may have a policy that addresses the display of personal items in the workplace or, at the least, speaks to maintaining a professional office environment. The department responsible for distributing and enforcing these policies is human resources, so start by making an inquiry to HR. If there is no policy, ask HR how to handle the situation.

What if you don’t have an HR department?

This is when you must tread carefully.

First, take a look around your work environment. Do other people have personal items on display in their offices and cubicles? Undoubtedly, the answer is yes.

As a result, your employee can claim religious discrimination if you ask her to remove her posters of Jesus while you let Madge adorn her walls with photos of her grandchildren. Likewise, that magazine cover of McDreamy on Suzie’s bulletin board could be used as comparison. And the baseball all-stars calendar in Jason’s cube? You’re allowing that, aren’t you?

It’s a dilemma, to be sure. But there still may be an opportunity to address the situation.

In answering the question, “Can my employer require me to remove religious items from my workspace?” at its website Youth at Work, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) actually provides information for employers.

Here’s the EEOC’s reply: “The answer to this question depends on your company’s policy about displaying personal items, what you want to display, and how visible your workspace is to others. For example, you should be allowed to hang a small religious calendar in your cubicle if your employer allows employees to decorate their workstations with personal items, such as posters, calendars or non-religious pictures. On the other hand, you may not be able to put up religious items if your employer does not permit any personal items in employee workstations, or, for example, if your workstation is the company’s front desk.”

What this suggests is that a change in policy or a new direction with regard to office décor, provided it applies to all employees, would address your situation.

Is there an opportunity to spruce up the office? If you could get the carpet cleaned, windows washed, and even get the walls painted to coincide with a new policy that mandates a “more professional office image” it would be ideal.

Begin by holding a meeting of all employees to let them know that efforts are underway to create a more professional office environment. Say something like, “Increased competition in a tightening economy makes it especially important that we come across as professional as possible.”

If you’re going to be cleaning and painting, let your staff know this is part of the plan. Then introduce the new standards. “In keeping with the new environment, personal items in work areas must be kept to a minimum.”

Be sure to indicate what is allowed, without using examples. “You may have a personal photo or two on your desk or your bulletin board, and one or two personal items, but your offices and cubicles should include mainly functional work items so that the environment looks professional.”

Once you have this conversation, follow it up in writing in the form of a new office policy regarding individual work environments and the display of personal items. Don’t forget to note the effective date.

By addressing the situation in this way you are not singling out anyone. When policies are applicable to all, you generally don’t run the risk of offending or alienating an individual employee–or of finding yourself on the receiving end of a discrimination claim.

Incidentally, by getting everyone to clean up their offices and cubes, you’ll not only dismantle the office shrine, you’ll achieve the stated goal: a more professional work environment.

Have a question? Email Paula here.

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