The AMER Guide to Handling Religious Harassment at Work.
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. Workers 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:
(1) for your age, gender, ethnic or national origin, religion or any other
reason mentioned in the civil rights acts;
(2) for filing workplace safety complaints as covered by the Occupational
Safety & Health Act; (3) for attempting to organize a union, protected by
the National Fair Labor Practices Act; or (4) 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 mistreatment
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
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
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 authority.
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
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
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, Clayton,
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
J. Brad Hicks
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