Q:I have a couple of employees who just started using religious expressions (e.g., “God bless” and “Your friend in God”) in their e-mails. Another employee is offended by the e-mails and wants me to make them stop. Any words of wisdom?
A: In addition to prohibiting religious discrimination in the workplace, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 imposes an affirmative duty to accommodate the religious beliefs and practices of your employees unless doing so constitutes harassment or poses an undue hardship on your business. Of course, you have the right to prohibit religious proselytizing in the workplace. However, simply signing e-mails with “God bless” or “Your friend in God,” while objectionable to some, doesn’t meet the definition of proselytizing or forcing a religious belief on others. Furthermore, undue hardship requires more than just proof that some workers complained of religious expressions in the workplace. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission holds that undue hardship requires evidence that an individual’s religious expression was so severe and pervasive that it infringed on the rights of coworkers or caused a disruption of work.
Still, it would be best to advise the employees that their expressions offend some employees and ask them to stop. If they don’t stop, you may need to move on with your progressive discipline system. One of the more difficult situations HR must handle is when an employee feels the need to “preach” to coworkers.
Proselytizing and preaching the gospel don’t really belong in the workplace. And if you allow one employee the freedom to express her religious beliefs, you have to allow others to do the same. That’s usually where the trouble begins. Ultimately, and perhaps unfortunately, the easiest solution may be to require that all employees use a standardized e-mail signature for all communications on the company’s e-mail system.
As people become more and more accustomed to communicating through electronic social media, personalized e-mail signatures, employee blogs, and other means of electronic self-expression are becoming more prevalent. While it’s hard to imagine why an expression of peace and friendship such as those stated in your question would be “offensive,” the fact is religious expressions are often a source of controversy.