National Association of
Counties * Washington, D.C.
Vol. 31, No.
24 * December 20, 1999
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Religion in the Work
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?
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
In considering all of these areas of religion in the work
place, the HR Doctor recommends an approach which focuses on these
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 agencys
basic mission to serve everyone, regardless of religious belief, is not
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.
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
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.
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
managements 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. Thats what the HR Doctor wishes for each of
Visit the HR Doctors Office at http://www.hrdr.net/.
(If you have questions for the "HR Doctor," e-mail him
Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County,
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