You’re headed for the cafeteria when George (a young, energetic manager with promise) stops you and says, “I hope you don’t expect me to show up for that class about gays tomorrow.” This is news. You didn’t know George had objections to the planned diversity seminar. George registers your surprise and ups the ante. “I believe in God and scripture,” he says, his voice growing louder. “I won’t go.” You notice that people have stopped to listen in. “Let’s talk about this in my office,” you say. George crosses his arms over his chest. “I’d rather talk here.”
What to do? Your lunch is a write-off. Adrenaline pours into your bloodstream. Fight or flight is your natural response, but it won’t help you now. What can you say to avoid a shouting match?
The best answer is not much.
A little silence is a perfectly good first response. It gives you time to think and gives George a moment to calm down and maybe even regret his impulsive words. This is why they call you an HR professional.
From Ambush to Appointment
When you do speak, express your concern and ask, again, that George meet with you. As Drew Alexis, vice president and associate general counsel of IndyMac Bank, says, “I would want the first thought in your mind to be about Title VII. The law requires that you make reasonable accommodation for sincerely held religious beliefs.” That thought will likely lead you to say something like “I can see this is important to you” or “I respect your religious concerns.”
If George comes back with more hard words, grit your teeth if you have to, but keep stating your willingness to listen. A neutral “I’m glad you brought this up. I didn’t know it was a problem,” might help. If George knows he will be heard, he is likely to back away from a public confrontation.
Why Curiosity Works
Once the employee agrees to a meeting (and if he won’t, stress that your door is open), spend some time conferring with others in your department. Then get curious. Genuinely curious.
Prepare to take careful notes during the meeting, and always have someone else present. But most importantly, remain open. “If we assume we know what’s behind someone’s resistance to a diversity effort,” says Alexis, “then we’re going to be wrong a good bit of the time. When you break things down, a reasonable accommodation is usually possible, but not if you enter a conversation thinking you know exactly what’s going on in the other person’s mind.” Knee-jerk assumptions are an easy path to stalemate. Ask questions instead. Your goal is to understand the exact nature of George’s complaint.
In response, you’ll need to define in very precise terms the goal of the diversity training or seminar. “If the goal of your program is that an employee attends and listens, there may not be a problem. You’re not asking him to change his beliefs or endorse a lifestyle. The core of this process is communication,” says Alexis. “I’ve seen many cases that could have been avoided if people had simply asked more questions and been willing to listen.”
For example, if the company requires that employees sign a statement after training, does that statement simply say that they attended and listened? “That’s often OK with an employee, even one who has religious objections,” says Alexis. “But vague statements invite problems. Be sure a statement is tied to simple, definable behaviors and not to beliefs.”
As your conversation continues, keep asking questions. The more engaged your brain remains with asking questions, the less likely you are to react emotionally in what is often a charged situation. In the process, you’re likely to find your respect growing for an employee who is willing to risk engaging with you, rather than remaining quiet or muttering behind your back.
Make the Business Case
Be sure to explain the business reasons for the program. Talk about how a workplace where everyone is treated with respect becomes a better place to work, more productive and more innovative. You may want to express your concern that refusing diversity training can impede the employee’s ability to do his work. Communicate that, just as it is your job to make a good-faith effort to accommodate his beliefs, it is also incumbent on you to do so without disrupting the workplace.
After you meet, write an account of the meeting. Ask the employee to examine it and sign it with any changes you both agree on. You may need to have several meetings in order to resolve this issue; but by diffusing the initial exchange in the hallway to begin with, you’ve set the tone for successful discussions.
“Respecting and Responding to Employee Religious Objections to Diversity and Respect Training,” Municipal Lawyer, May/June 2006. Online at www.wrf.com/docs/publications/12660.pdf
“How Can Employers Avoid Religious Harassment and Discrimination Claims?” CCG Counsel Consulting Group. Online at http://www.counselconsulting.com/avoiding_05_2004.htm