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I am the new manager of a sub-team of 6 employees within a larger team of 65 employees. We work for a large Fortune 50 company in the US. One of my employees, "Helen", was previously refusing to work with another employee, "Mark". I had a conversation with Helen in which I made it clear that it's necessary for her to work with Mark at least for the next few months (until the current projects are completed). After that, Helen begrudingly started working with Mark, but now she regularly insults him to his face and makes negative comments about him to other employees.

I should say that Mark has no problems working with Helen or anyone else, nor do others have problems working with Mark.

It seems straightforward that I should tell Helen to cut out the insults and shit-talking. It's unprofessional and no one else in our department behaves like this. Helen has been in the workforce almost ten years, so she can't claim ignorance of workplace norms.

However, it's not so straightforward, because there is a religious freedom concern. Helen cited her religion (and went into some detail) as the reason she didn't work with Mark, and now she's citing her religion as her reason for insulting him and talking shit about him, both of which she acknowledged she does.

There is also a sexual orientation concern, because Mark is a homosexual. While he is very private about this, Helen found out somehow (I'm not sure how - I only know because Mark had to take a day off to take his husband for surgery a few months ago). I don't agree with his lifestyle choices, but Mark is a good employee with strong work ethic and integrity. That's all that matters to me as his manager. But Helen doesn't agree, and all of her insults and shit-talking center around Mark's sexual orientation.

In our state (US), it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of religious affiliation. Our internal company policies also ban discrimination on the basis of religion.

On the other hand, it's legal here to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. But our company policies ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

As a man of faith myself, I belong to a different denomination of Helen's religion, and I'm sympathetic to Helen's position on homosexuality as a whole. But I question if Helen is really allowed to first refuse to work with and later insult a homosexual employee simply because of her religion. That doesn't seem right. If Helen were not religious, or if her insults were related to some other subject matter, she would have had a meeting with HR by now.

How do I handle this conflict between Helen's religious freedom and Mark's sexual orientation?

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    This question got 26 comments in its first three hours. There's quite a lively discussion of religion, different types of discrimination, whether harassment is legal, and more taking place in chat. Please continue the discussion there, and use comments here to request clarification. – Monica Cellio Jul 10 '17 at 1:25
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    Related, may be even a duplicate. workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/55090/… – Sidney Jul 10 '17 at 14:24
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    Thank you, everyone. I went to see HR about this today. They told me that they are already aware (how, I don't know, must be Mark went to them) and they said they already took action on the problem! I asked them how they had done that, since Helen is still insulting Mark. They said they weren't aware the problem is ongoing. They set up separate meetings with everyone involved, and after that, Mark, Helen and I will have a meeting with them together. We'll see what happens. – TangoFoxtrot Jul 10 '17 at 21:31
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    As another update... As of this morning, HR informed me that they are looking for promotion opportunities to move Helen into another department. I admit, I became livid and nearly lost my cool. They want to PROMOTE her? I understand transfering her to a different department, although this still kicks the problem down the road, since it's likely she'll harass someone else at the new dept. But promoting her is rewarding her unprofessional behavior. I can't believe this. I'm still angry. (Guess I owe an apology to those who criticized my allegations of liberal bias on the part of HR...) – TangoFoxtrot Jul 18 '17 at 1:26
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    @TAngoFoxtrot So did Helen ever get fired? – LeLetter Nov 1 '17 at 20:12

10 Answers 10

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You work for a large company with an HR department. Why on earth have you not presented this to them? You should have taken it to HR the first time you became aware that she verbally harassed this employee. That you didn't means that you too are complicit in the harassment. And if Mark chooses to bring it up to HR and he tells them you were aware of what was going on, you could be in as much trouble as she is. Get to HR today and discuss with them. It is your job to make sure this sort of thing doesn't happen. You have failed at that job.

  • What is more curious for me is why "Mark" hasn't been contacting HR about this. Or has he @TangoFoxtrot ? – Radu Murzea Jul 11 '17 at 9:39
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    +1 for OP's complicity. He's not management material if he allows harassment of his employees. – sleddog Jul 11 '17 at 12:44
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    @RaduMurzea There are a lot of reasons why people don't bring things up to HR. I don't. The last time I brought something up to HR (severe verbal abuse by my boss) I got fired a few hours after. HR is not your friend and I can't think of a reason I would ever complain to HR again. I'd just leave. – Chris E Jul 11 '17 at 16:11
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    This is the manager, he should be consulting with HR on issues like this, that is part of the requirements of his job. – HLGEM Jul 11 '17 at 16:41
  • Correct, I'm the manager, and you are absolutely right. I should have gone to HR long ago. I was far too late by the time I did so last week. – TangoFoxtrot Jul 18 '17 at 1:28
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How do I handle this conflict between Helen's religious freedom and Mark's sexual orientation?

There is simply no conflict here.

Religious freedom doesn't mean you are allowed to "insult" or "talk shit" about coworkers. Helen can think those thoughts, but she cannot vocalize them to coworkers and thus harass them - such harassment simply has nothing to do with "religious freedom". (If it did, then folks could go around claiming that their deity commands them to slap people in the face - ludicrous).

If Helen's religion doesn't teach her tolerance then you can still require that she keep her thoughts to herself or get herself fired.

If it were me, I'd immediately sit her down and explain the realities of the workplace to her. And if I were afraid to do so, or if my religion made me confused about the discussion, I'd immediately ask HR to do it for me.

Note: Based on some of your comments, it's not clear if you are actually seeking a solution to a real problem, or would rather engage in some philosophical/religious/legal discussion. If the former, I've provided my answer. If the latter, this isn't the correct forum.

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    Well said Joe I am aware of a situation in the uk where there was a sectarian issue in Scotland, group hr and the unions went up and read every one the riot act and said if this happed again there would no longer be an office in Scotland period. – Neuromancer Jul 9 '17 at 21:35
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    OP's religion or theological knowledge should not be even in the game. Helen needs to be put in place not by superior theological knowledge, but by the fact that she creates a hostile workplace. That is all that matters. – Captain Emacs Jul 9 '17 at 23:12
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    @Fattie A physical threat is easy to isolate and ban. However, OP cites clearly a verbal insult, which they do not know how to react to, as it is a "freedom of speech" matter (stating that they do not have theological knowledge to defeat it). However, "freedom of speech" principles do not apply here, either. She is free to say what she wants, but not, as a consequence, to keep her job. – Captain Emacs Jul 9 '17 at 23:14
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    This answer and maybe a expedited process of canning Helen is all you need. – Magisch Jul 10 '17 at 12:06
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    Harrasment is NOT based on a protected class. If one employee demeans, insults, and/or ridicules another in an aggressive fashion for ANY REASON (favorite sports team, ice cream flavor, brand of toothpaste) it's harrasment. Discrimination laws are particular to protected classes, harassement laws are not. – Glen Pierce Jul 10 '17 at 14:52
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You are completely misunderstanding what religious discrimination is. A law against discrimination means you can't treat people differently for being religious (or make rules that conflict with a faith just for the sake of it). It does not mean religious people can do whatever they want. A good litmus test for whether something is religious discrimination is to ask yourself "would I still be doing this if the person weren't religious?" If yes, then it's probably not religious discrimination.

So let's take this example. If Helen hated gay people just because, and happened to be an atheist, would you tolerate this behavior? What if she constantly made fun of his clothes and haircut just for fun? Surely you would immediately force her to stop, and fire her quickly if she refused. Her being religious should not change that.

Let's also consider whether it's discrimination to force her to work with Mark. Are you forcing her to work with him because it's against her religion? Presumably not. If she were atheist, would you want her to work him? If yes, then it has nothing to do with her religion, and so it cannot be religious discrimination. The fact that her religion causes her to dislike a job duty is irrelevant, the same way it'd be irrelevant if she were against working with computers, or inside an office, or with men, or obeying a manager's direction, or anything else required for her job.

It is unacceptable to let any employee treat any other the way that Helen is treating Mark. You need to put a stop to it immediately. Her reasons for doing so are completely irrelevant, and you should tell her as much.

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    I upvoted, thanks. However, please note that "you can't treat people differently [for] being religious" is false. In fact, religious accommodations require employers to treat religious employees differently if the employee requests so. For example, if a Muslim employee requests 5x/day prayer breaks, the employer has to allow it provided it's a reasonable accommodation. They do not have to allow the same accommodation to an atheist who wants 5x/day meditation breaks. So actually, employers CAN treat people differently for being religious - provided differently means better. – TangoFoxtrot Jul 10 '17 at 2:12
  • @TangoFoxtrot well you can't treat them differently in a way they object to, obviously. Though an atheist that doesn't get five breaks a day could probably complain... – Kat Jul 10 '17 at 2:14
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    "the employer has to allow it provided it's a reasonable accommodation." This is the crux of the issue.The prohibition against religious discrimination is not carte blanche for every expression of religious belief. No court is going to hold that requiring another employee to endure harassment is a reasonable accommodation. On the other hand, dependent on circumstance, allowing Helen to refuse to work with gay employees might be regarded by a court as a reasonable accommodation. There is no action you can take here that will guarantee that you won't be facing a law suit. – Charles E. Grant Jul 10 '17 at 2:44
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    @CharlesE.Grant obviously separating them isn't feasible, or OP would have done that already. I can't imagine that forcing everyone to disclose their sexual orientation would be seen as reasonable in any case, but who knows. Either way, what she is doing now is clearly unreasonable and needs to stop. – Kat Jul 10 '17 at 20:08
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If your company prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and you have already asked Helen to cease and desist her comments to Mark, you should escalate to HR.

It isn't a "religious freedom" to harass someone else for what they do outside of their work and creates a toxic team environment. Imagine a similar situation with a team member constantly ridiculing another being divorced. This is completely uncalled for and unprofessional.

Edit: I changed my example since in the US, there isn't discrimination protection for weight. I still think it is basic human decency not to criticize a person outside of the work they do in the workplace.

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It isn't that complicated

Let's ask see what the EEOC has to say about religious accommodations:

An employer does not have to accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices if doing so would cause undue hardship to the employer. An accommodation may cause undue hardship if it is costly, compromises workplace safety, decreases workplace efficiency, infringes on the rights of other employees, or requires other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.

She's creating a hostile work environment for your employees. As many others have said, "it's my religion" isn't carte blanche to do whatever you want.

She needs to be written up for the harassment that's she's already admitted to and be put on probation to determine if she's able to continue employment. Basically, give her a PIP.

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You need to get HR and possibly a lawyer involved. But I have confidence in saying that their advice will be that Helen needs to stop this behaviour or face disciplinary action, possibly termination. Even if Helen were permitted to decline to work with Mark, insulting him is absolutely off limits.

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    I think the mistake in the whole premise is letting religion entering the game. Privately, you can argue via theology. In the business setting, do not let this line of thinking even enter your strategy. What if OP is an Atheist? Will she listen to them? Is she entitled to ignore them? The answer is: it does not matter. She may be entitled by her religion, but not by her role in the job and it is the latter that counts. – Captain Emacs Jul 9 '17 at 23:25
  • In Mississippi, theology has every place in this kind of discussion. Unfortunately. I'm from there, but for some reason I moved to California. – Amy Blankenship Jul 10 '17 at 0:11
  • @AmyBlankenship Ouch. I am very good at theology and the corresponding argumentation manoeuvres. But I would never use it/permit it in business-related issues. When you do Judo, I should think you would not be permitted Karate moves. – Captain Emacs Jul 10 '17 at 2:05
  • Interestingly enough, they are starting to mix in judo where I do Karate ;-) – Amy Blankenship Jul 18 '17 at 3:26
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Good answers so far, I just want to make a point on one thing:

There's a difference between free speech and hate speech.

"Free speech is part of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In addition to allowing for freedom of religion, the First Amendment also allows for the freedom of expression. "

"Hate speech is when a person or a group of people is attacked based on factors such as their gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, or disability."

"Of course, where the First Amendment becomes tricky is when it comes to people who have discriminatory ideologies against others, as they are also protected under the law. For example, one can vehemently disagree with the views of the Ku Klux Klan, which believes in white supremacy, but unless members of the Klan act on those words, their speech and right to assemble is protected under the Constitution."

We can translate this example to the one at hand. Helen has the right to hold her opinion, but she is acting upon on it. It's getting in the way of her ability to stay professional and it's not okay to act upon her believes to the state where she's insulting people for her believes. You simply can't, especially not in a professional environment.

At the end of the day, her religion doesn't matter, your opinion on his lifestyle doesn't matter, what matters is if one's believes are being acted upon with the goal of insulting a person and costing a business a lot of money. The source of the opinion doesn't matter. The result is what matters and this result is completely unacceptable. Heck, she could refuse to work with people who have sex before getting married. Companies would quickly go out of business if people could just wander around, refusing to work with people who do things in their personal time they don't like, based on whatever reason.

You need to talk to Helen, tell her that she is entitled to her opinions but acting upon it in the workplace is completely unacceptable and she's a weak link the operation that will need to be cut off if she fails to comply. You can tell her that if she doesn't want to work with someone, she has the right to resign and look for work elsewhere with people that she'd rather work with.

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The real conflict seems to be that you're a new manager and don't want to rock the boat. You know the right thing to do, which is to sternly set the expectation for Helen. But she's been around a while, and it doesn't seem that you're interested in the repercussions of setting her straight. You're using your own religious views as a semi-justification for what's going on in the workplace. It didn't work for Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis in Kentucky, who was jailed, and it will catch up with you sooner or later.

You're leaving the company wide open for legal action. Never mind what your state law allows or not - Helen's actions are wrong, and every single slight against Mark is a notch against you and the company. What if Mark pursued legal action, but decided to do so in federal court??? Do you sit by and try to ignore the obvious, or do you wait for the wrecking ball to hit you? Choose wisely.

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    I agree with what you're insinuating: OP feels his religious views supersede his management responsibilities which oblige him to stop harassment/discrimination against Mark. He's making an abominable personal decision. and an extremely short-sighted professional one. If "Mark" is keeping receipts (he probably is) he's going to nuke OP, "Helen" and OP's employer in court. Mississippi (if that's where this is) is NOT a two-party consent state: I hope "Mark" is recording his encounters. – sleddog Jul 10 '17 at 19:08
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    @sleddog: Since it is company poilicy to not allow discrimination against gay men, Helen and OP might actually get into trouble (with their company) as soon as Mark reports high enough within the company. – gnasher729 Jul 10 '17 at 21:37
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Other answers are good, but there is are simple facts here that needs to be taken into account.

  1. What is the law?
  2. What is the company policy and does it adhere to the law?
  3. What employee actions are in violation to 1 & 2.

The fact is if Helen wants to work in the country then she needs to adhere to the law and so does Mark. If it's illegal to be homosexual then regardless of Mark's feelings he breaks the law.

If it's not illegal then regardless of Helen's feelings Mark has the right in that country. If it's illegal to create a "hostile work environment" through verbal insults then Helen can be reprimanded up to termination and possible prosecution. Some countries don't have freedom of speech and some do, some allow a lot of verbal abuse with absolutely no penalty, some discriminate and are fine with that.

Don't depend on how you feel about something, but get the exact facts and use them to back up your stance and explain the ramifications of each person's action to them accordingly. This puts it clearly in Helen's court to either change and save her job or continue and risk the consequences of creating a hostile work environment. This isn't a religious/moral issue, but a legal one as you legally employ someone to work according to the countries laws. Getting paid to work is a privilege, not a right...as such one must abide by the standards laid down for employment even if they feel the standards suck. Belief is one thing, actions based on the belief is what the laws are addressing and it's the actions your addressing, not the beliefs.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Jul 12 '17 at 11:12
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It may be illegal in your state to discriminate based on sexual orientation, but your company says "no" to it. In other words, your company can't be punished by the state for it, but you and Helen can both get fired for discrimination based on sexual orientation. So don't even go there if you like your job.

However, what Helen is doing is not "discrimination". She is just creating a hostile work environment. If it was discrimination, it would be against company policy and she could be fired for it. If it is just plain old harassment then she can also be fired for it. Which is something that should be considered.

You thought about getting rid of Mark. Considering that your company is apparently run by decent folks, if you try that and Mark explains the situation higher up, I'd say it's your job that's in danger. More than Marks.

Telling a woman to stop harrassing a co-worker is not "religious discrimination". I can't really see where you would be getting that idea from. God clearly agrees with people being gay. If he or she didn't then there would be no gay people, right? If Helen's religion tells her that she should harass Mark, then you need to tell her that this is in direct conflict with her employment, and she needs to behave or work somewhere else.

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    I think you mean "may be legal" in the first line? – Erik Jul 11 '17 at 6:52
  • "God clearly agrees with people being gay. If he or she didn't then there would be no gay people, right?" Nope. There are murderers, too, so do you think God also clearly agrees with murderers killing people? No. We all have free will, and choose sin. That said, it's irrelevant, because harassment is harassment and it does not matter if Helen's justification for the harassment is God/religion or otherwise. – TangoFoxtrot Jul 12 '17 at 21:21
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    @TangoFoxtrot homosexuality is not a choice. Your god makes people gay, for whatever reason. – Erik Jul 12 '17 at 21:57
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    @Erik "homosexuality is not a choice." That is an opinion, not a fact. (We can take this to chat if you want to continue the conversation. Thanks) – TangoFoxtrot Jul 13 '17 at 2:32
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    @TangoFoxtrot sorry, but discussing how homosexuality is not a choice is like discussing with a flat-earther. You 're just wrong. I feel no need to take that discussion any further. – Erik Jul 13 '17 at 5:28

protected by Chris E Jul 11 '17 at 13:18

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