Religion and work?

Originally Published: May 11, 2012
Share this
Hello Alice,

This is my first time writing, so thank you for being available! I have searched the web for any insight but haven't found much. Here it goes...

I have a friend at work who is very religious. He's not outspoken or boisterous about it, but it is generally known. I tend to keep away from talk of religion/politics at the work place — I am an Agnostic. My problem is that this friend sends text message bible quotes around holidays. They are foreboding and very fire-and-brimstone like. I am unsure how to handle these.

In the past I have ignored the messages, but at work I am asked if I received the messages where I usually reply that I had my phone off, or that I had not. To which he will resend on the spot. If I say I have received the message, then he will attempt to chat about it, to which I am resistant. I see this person almost everyday, and he is genuinely a nice person, but I cringe around holidays. Doing anything drastic I feel will make things awkward, but more subtle tactics have had no effect. I don't even mind "Bless you's" or "have a blessed new year!" It's the fear and power and almighty thunder that really rattles my nerves. I feel stuck, what other options do I have?

Dear Reader,

You really are in a tough position! On the one hand, you don’t want to have these religious conversations with him, and don’t want to hear the hell fire and brimstone preaching via text or otherwise. On the other hand, you want to avoid a difficult confrontation because you work with him every day. It sounds like you’ve tried to convey your feelings politely and he is refusing to hear it.

When confronting your coworker, it may be helpful to know the laws surrounding this issue. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employees from being harassed about her/his religion. Harassment is defined as either hostility or proselytizing; he is doing the latter and may be even doing the former, especially if he is ignoring your resistance to the conversations. What you are experiencing is a form of harassment and it is actually illegal. He is creating a hostile work environment for you and infringing on your rights. People have taken legal action for such offenses and while you may not want to go that route, rest assured that this behavior from your coworker is inappropriate.

It sounds like you have been trying to be polite, but the subtle hints are not getting through to your colleague. It may be time to sit down with your coworker to have a more overt talk about his behavior. Explain to him that while you understand his commitment to his faith, his texts make you uncomfortable. You could ask that as a sign of respect to you, he refrain from sending these texts and talking to you about his religious beliefs. Whether or not he agrees to do so, you may want to spend less time with him socially, although you may be stuck dealing with him at work. These conversations are often very tricky because religion can be an important part of people's lives from which they may derive their values, morals, and reason for living. However, you have a right to have a workplace free of proselytization.

It may be a good idea to begin documenting these incidents: the texts, his questions to you about his messages, etc. Keep a log where you mention the details of the direct conversation, and then continue to document in that log any other religious proselytizing or changes in his behavior towards you after said conversation. Do you feel comfortable talking to a supervisor about his behavior? Particularly if he doesn’t respect your wishes after you have talked to him, it would be important to notify a supervisor.  You may also want to have a confidential conversation with a representative from Human Resources (HR) as these professionals are highly trained to assist with situations like you have described. The HR representative can guide you on how to document or track the situation and also provide support on how to have a balanced conversation with your coworker.

It sounds as if the time has come to tell your coworker that you are not interested in learning more or discussing his religion. It isn't personal, but this is simply not something you'd like to talk about. Firmly and politely insist for him to stop sending the texts. Then document! Your next step will be to talk with a supervisor. Even if this feels harsh, remember that you have a right to a workplace free of proselytization.

Good luck!

Alice