Dear Evil Skippy and Jim –
I manage a department with 25 employees. Recently, one of my newer employees (“Lynn”, not her real name) came to me with a complaint. She was upset because another employee (“Sue”) had invited everyone to join her at a celebration of the Buddha’s birthday at her temple. Lynn said she was offended to be subjected to the “attempted conversion” and “anti-Christian propaganda”. I replied that the invitation did not seem offensive to me and I pointed out that Lynn had invited everyone to a Christmas party last December (Lynn’s house was decorated like a church — there were manger scenes everywhere and she insisted that we all sing traditional (i.e. religious) carols). Lynn has now complained to Human Resources, saying that I did not take her complaint seriously. Did I blow it?
– Trying to Manage Right
Evil Skippy replies:
Did the invitation say “Stamp Out Christianity Now!”? Did Sue threaten Lynn with 25 years of bad karma if she did not go to the party? If a simple invitation offended her so much, Lynn really needs to be connected to a good therapist or maybe a fine martini bar. Who does she think she is? She gets to have parties but no one else has the same right? It seems to me that you have a closed-minded pain in the neck working in your department, and I mean Lynn. Did you blow it? Yes indeed – when you hired Lynn.
Ahem. I think what Evil Skippy was trying to say is that Lynn’s complaint does not seem reasonable. One of the hallmarks of illegal harassment is that the conduct under review must have been offensive to a reasonable person. As long as Sue’s invitation did not contain put-downs about other religions, it could not possibly be offensive to a reasonable person despite that person’s personal religious beliefs. (Please note that I did not say that it could not be offensive to anyone – just not to reasonable people. Lynn is not being reasonable.) As the EEOC states about unwelcome conduct in its Compliance Manual regarding religious discrimination and harassment:
Whether a reasonable person would perceive the conduct as abusive turns on common sense and context, looking at the totality of the circumstances. Relevant factors include whether the conduct was abusive, derogatory, or offensive; whether the conduct was frequent; and whether the conduct was humiliating or physically threatening.
Did you blow it? Maybe you were on the road to blowing it. You certainly could have handled the incident a little better. Right or wrong, Lynn came to you with a complaint because she was upset. As a manager, you are obligated to take all complaints seriously. This did not mean that you needed to initiate a complicated investigation or call an executive meeting of the highest level of management. However, you should have responded directly to Lynn’s concern instead of succumbing to the temptation to turn the tables on her. The fact that she hosted a Christmas party and does not see how her own behavior might have been viewed as a religious overture is ironic but not particularly relevant. Put yourself in her shoes – she came to you with a concern and you appeared to dismiss it and criticize her.
Here is what I would have said: “Thanks for letting me know how you feel about it. What was it about the invitation that offended you?” After she provides details (and assuming that nothing new is revealed that transforms the invitation into something derogatory or otherwise offensive), tell Lynn your conclusion (in a professional, non-judgmental manner of course) and offer to discuss the matter with Human Resources if she wants. It would go something like this: “First of all, the company is not endorsing this event. I understand that the event has a religious connection to it, but there is no pressure on anyone to attend and nothing derogatory going on from what you have told me. Lynn’s invitation does not violate our anti-harassment policy or any other policy. I’m glad that you brought this up. Would you like to talk this over with Human Resources?”
If Lynn had not wanted to talk to Human Resources, you would still have informed either them or your direct manager about Lynn’s concern and how you responded. Why? So Lynn can’t say that you ignored her complaint or that you tried in any way to quash her right to raise concerns.
Good luck with Human Resources. Unless you talked to Lynn like Evil Skippy, you should be O.K. Make sure that Lynn knows that you were not criticizing her for having a Christmas party — you were simply comparing her action to Sue’s. One more thing – thanks for this question. It was the first one sent to “Evil Skippy at Work” and it helped me learn something new. I had not known about the celebrations of the Buddha’s birthday. I may track one down next year and experience the celebration for myself.
Skippy chuckles. There you go. I wonder if you offended Lynn with that closing. I still think the martini approach would have worked just as well.