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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.           Vol. 31, No. 24 * December 20, 1999

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Religion in the Work Place

The holiday season is more than a time for buying presents, decorating Christmas trees and lighting Hanukkah candles. It is a time of deep religious meaning to many millions of people – including millions of public employees. It is a time, however, when HR professionals face particular challenges in responding to issues of religion at the work place. The HR Doctor reminds readers that every manager and every supervisor is also an HR professional.

The challenges come in several forms. One form concerns decorations sponsored by or sanctioned by the public agency. Another concerns clothing, jewelry or decorations brought to work or worn by employees and generally displayed in their work areas. There are also questions which have emerged concerning religious proselytizing, bible studies or prayer meetings in the public agency. Finally, there are also questions about fund-raising at holiday time for causes that are specifically linked to one religion or have a clear tie to supporting religious activities. What should a supervisor do?

The HR Doctor recommends against what might at first appear to be an obvious, consistent and across-the-board strategy of banning all references to holidays or religion in the work place (i.e., “zero tolerance” for religion at work).

This is not only impractical but would engender unnecessary work place complaints and hurt morale. Ironically, such a policy would provoke much more discussion about religion and, the First Amendment. than would be the case with a different kind of policy. As one commentator put it concerning religion in school, “those who think you can totally ban prayer in school have never been to a school during final exams.”

In considering all of these areas of religion in the work place, the HR Doctor recommends an approach which focuses on these elements:

• Employees have the right to religious expression at work as long as public agency resources are not used, work place efficiency and good order is not disrupted, and as long as the agency’s basic mission to serve everyone, regardless of religious belief, is not harmed.

• This general guideline means that agency resources such as e-mail, vehicles or copy machines, are not to be used for religious messages or proselytizing.

One firefighter known to the HR Doctor had a practice of sending an “everyone” E-mail at midnight on Christmas Eve with an obvious religious message. The religious zeal of the firefighter extended too far – it used county resources including the time of thousands of people who opened the e-mail and took time away from work to read it. The counseling and admonition which resulted was managed in a respectful but clear manner, and years later the problem has not reoccurred – at least with that person.

Public agencies frequently put up holiday decorations or send holiday messages from the chief elected or appointed official. The HR Doctor urges special care in extending these messages of goodwill.

They are a great idea which helps to “humanize” the work place but they must be managed in a manner that is not linked to a particular religious belief or could be perceived as slighting another belief not mentioned. This is, after all, not only a season celebrating important events in one religion but rather is a time important to a variety of religions.

It is better to send a message recognizing what is common in a work place full of religious and other diversity – a message of goodwill, a wish for peace and a wish for holiday safety and enjoyment – rather than a message that focuses on the icons or symbols of one religion in particular. Holiday decorations should also reflect the universal holiday themes described above, rather than feature scenes specifically linked to one religious denomination.

Religious study or prayer sessions or bible reading, are activities that the HR Doctor recommends be permitted only on employee break time, only with no coercion by one employee implying or specifically stating that another should participate, and only in areas where employees may conduct other break time activities such as reading, other study groups or quiet discussions.

Managers need to balance freedom of religious expression at work against avoiding the appearance or reality of favoring one group over another or of permitting the disruption of work activities for which all the taxpayers hold us accountable.

The same balance should apply to consideration of employee dress, jewelry of religious symbols in personal work space, such as on a desk. Wearing a turban or a yarmulke, or having a beard or other form or religious grooming or dress is part of a First Amendment religious expression safeguard. However, if the turban conflicts with a safety requirement for a hard hat, or the beard disrupts the air seal on breathing apparatus, the safety issue prevails. There is a compelling employer interest to maintain the primacy of safety in the work place. Conversely, when religious expression does not conflict with a compelling interest of the employer, the HR Doctor believes that the public official should not intervene unnecessarily.

Clothing or overt religious symbols in a place that is directly visible to the public or other county-workers could be unwelcome or may imply that there are higher standards of public service for those who profess support for one religion over another.

This kind of perception or reality should not be permitted and managers have an obligation to respectfully stop, counsel and correct such practices. The agency is obligated to effectively serve the public – all members of the public, practicing any religion or no religion. The employees are obligated to understand this public service commitment and respect it as a matter of agency policy.

In all of these areas of religion in the work place, the balance described in this article should guide management’s responses and employee conduct. This is a good time to remind managers of their obligations, and to ensure that the HR staff is ready to promptly and respectfully intervene to help managers or employees with questions or concerns.

Ironically, the holiday season is also a time of stress and the time which may be a very busy one in the Employee Assistance Program. It is also a time when a public employer can demonstrate the kind of sensitivity and concern which will contribute to bringing to the work place the holiday ideals of peace and goodwill toward one another. That’s what the HR Doctor wishes for each of you.

“Visit” the HR Doctor’s Office at


Phil Rosenberg,
The HR Doctor

(If you have questions for the "HR Doctor," e-mail him at Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County, Fla.)


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