Religion at Work

Last Updated Dec 10, 2010 2:06 PM EST

Dear Evil HR Lady,

A young lady I work with is very involved in her church and likes to talk about her beliefs and all the other things that come along with her particular flavor of worship. While I don't mind her talking about 90% of what she does, sometimes she crosses the line and goes from a friendly conversation/lighthearted debate to some pretty intense, very awkward blaming, condemning, and preaching.

Like I said before, I'm okay with her talking about her beliefs to a point, but it's coming to the point where her constant preaching is not just annoying, but it's causing tension to rise in my department. It's become so bad that my coworkers have begun to ask our supervisor to schedule them so they don't have to work with this lady.

She's upset now because the company his having a holiday party and she doesn't celebrate Christmas.

I spoke with my HR manager about the issues going on, but I think she is hesitant to say anything to my coworker about this because of the religion issue.

I don't dislike my coworker, but she's becoming almost unbearable to be around. Everyone has catered to her needs when it comes to her church activities and continues to be sensitive towards her situation. That being said, it's becoming more and more obvious that she is using her particular circumstance to make everyone else miserable.

Is there anything I can do to keep this situation from getting worse? How would you handle the situation if you were in my shoes?

If I were the coworker of such a person (and I do mean coworker, not HR and not the manager) I would do one of two things:

I would adopt three catch phrases: "that's nice," "mmmm, interesting," and "that's not true."The "that's nice"/"mmmm interesting" comes out whenever she starts preaching and condemning. The "that's not true" is for when she claims she's being discriminated against. For instance:

Situation 1

You: I'm going skiing this weekend.
Her: Don't you know that Friday/Saturday/Sunday (I don't know her religion, so I'll just throw in 3 potential holy days) is a holy day! People who ski on Friday/Saturday/Sunday will burn in Hell!!!!!!!
You: That's nice.
Her: Haven't you read [relevant scripture from relevant holy book] that clearly says you'll go to Hell??????
You: That's a nice scripture, I'm sure.

Situation 2

You: I'm looking forward to the company holiday party next week.
Her: You are just discriminating against me because I don't celebrate Christmas. This company is always discriminating against me because of my beliefs.
You: That's not true.
Her: Yes it is true. You shouldn't have a Christmas party because it's against my religion.
You: Mmmm, interesting.
Her: I said, Christmas parties are against my religion.
You: Mmmm, interesting.

The goal of this is to politely shut her up. If you won't engage in her arguments she'll run out of steam pretty quickly. The only reason I have added in the option of "that's not true" is because it's pretty rude to claim you're being discriminated against when you're not. I don't want her getting away with it. If she attacks you directly, i.e. "all [insert your religion or lack thereof here] are so mean to [people of my religion]" you can throw in a nice, "that's an interesting assumption."

It's important that all of this be said blandly. The idea is to not engage and not feed the troll.

Engage in genuine discussion with her.Talking about religion makes her happy. Strike that. Arguing about religion makes her happy. If you can stop the arguing, she'll be kind of stuck won't she?

Situation 1:

You: I'm going skiing this weekend.
Her: Don't you know that Friday/Saturday/Sunday is a holy day! People who ski on Friday/Saturday/Sunday will burn in Hell!!!!!!!
You: Wow. That's fascinating. Can you tell me more about that?

And then you listen with "mmm, interestings" thrown in. No disagreeing or agreeing, just interesting.

Situation 2:

You: I'm looking forward to the company holiday party next week.
Her: You are just discriminating against me because I don't celebrate Christmas. This company is always discriminating against me because of my beliefs.
You: That's fascinating. Can you tell me a bit more about why you feel discriminated against?

This takes the steam right out of the person. It's hard to argue when someone is politely asking you to tell them more about your position. You don't have to agree to anything or change your mind about a thing. Just nicely get her to stop ranting.

Now please keep in mind that this advice is for coworkers only. You must not have supervisory/hire/fire/evaluation authority over this woman. If you're her manager, that's a whole different ball game, although this tends to work well if the offender (or shall we say, the easily offended) is your boss. If you're the manager, you need to actually, you know, manage this person. But that's a completely different post, which you can now read: Managing the Complainers Before They Sue for Discrimination.
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