Help Wanted: Religious harassment at work

Under federal law an employee?s beliefs must be

Under federal law an employee’s beliefs must be accommodated — but not if expressing them interferes with work. (Credit: iStock)

Carrie Mason-Draffen

Newsday columnist Carrie Mason Draffen Carrie Mason-Draffen

Mason-Draffen, a business reporter, writes a column about workplace issues.

bio | email

DEAR CARRIE: I work in a furniture store. Our department supervisor is a church pastor who preaches on the job and hands out fliers about his church. He also has told a co-worker who is a single mom that she is "disgusting" because she doesn't have a husband. She is a hard worker who goes to school part-time and doesn't deserve this kind of treatment. What recourse do we have? We sent a letter to corporate, but nothing happened. -- Not So Heavenly

DEAR NOT SO: The preacher needs to ease off, or he could land your employer in court.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of l964 prohibits employers from harassing individuals because of their religion -- or the lack of one, said Elizabeth Grossman, regional attorney in the New York District Office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Manhattan. If the company doesn't stop the preacher's behavior, it could be sued.

What is religious harassment?

"Religious harassment occurs when employees are required or coerced to abandon, alter or adopt a religious practice as a condition of employment," Grossman said.

In order to protect itself legally, your employer should investigate harassment claims immediately.

"Once an employer is on notice that an employee objects to religious conduct that is directed at him or her, the employer should take steps to end the conduct, because even conduct that the employer does not regard as abusive can become sufficiently severe or pervasive to affect the conditions of employment if allowed to persist in the face of the employee's objection," Grossman said.

All of the foregoing doesn't mean that employers should prohibit religious expression in the workplace. In fact, here's part of the workplace balancing act: The employer has to accommodate an employee's religious beliefs, unless the accommodation presents a business hardship.

"Title VII requires that employers accommodate an employee's sincerely held religious belief in engaging in religious expression in the workplace, to the extent that they can do so without undue hardship on the operation of the business," Grossman said.

If, for example, an employee's proselytizing interfered with work, the employer wouldn't have to allow it, Grossman said.

"Relevant considerations may include the effect such expression has on co-workers, customers or business operations," she said.

And supervisors have to be particularly cautious in displaying their faith.

"While supervisors are permitted to engage in certain religious expression, they should avoid expression that might -- due to their supervisory authority -- reasonably be perceived by subordinates as coercive, even when not so intended," Grossman said.

As for the barbs the preacher slings at the single mom, Grossman said that laws the EEOC enforces don't prohibit discrimination on the basis of marital status. But the New York State Division of Human Rights enforces such laws.

DEAR CARRIE: Our department's new policy states that employees must use at least five vacation days each quarter. Is this legal? Some of us have just two weeks of paid-time off and may find it inconvenient to be told when to use them. Do we have any recourse? -- Vacation Spoiler

DEAR VACATION: The policy may be unfair and even downright insensitive. But it's probably legal. Companies don't have to offer paid time off, and when they do, they largely dictate the terms.

For more on federal anti-discrimination laws go to www.eeoc.gov. For more on New York State human rights laws and marital status go to http://bit.ly/13nZ892 or call 516-538-1360.