(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 should be useful to all victims of harassment everywhere.)
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 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 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 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 progress.
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, MO 63105.
Our 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.
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Last Updated November 8, 1998