It’s not deja vu! It’s an ES Classic!
I have been a supervisor for six months and am in the middle of a mess that I never expected. I have been accused of harassing one of my employees based on her religion. She is Christian and her minister is in the local press a lot, speaking out against same sex marriage. Last week, this employee told me that she was offended by the “suggestive” photograph in a co-worker’s cubicle and she demanded that it be removed. I immediately went to the cubicle – expecting to find something steamy. It was just a wedding-style photo. I say wedding “style” because the photo depicted a male co-worker and his same-sex partner. He calls it their engagement photo since it is not legal for them to marry.
Evil Skippy, I was dumbfounded. The guys are in business suits. Their arms are around each other and they are clearly a couple, but there is nothing at all suggestive about the photo. (I should add that the complaining employee has a photo up that shows her and her husband when they were in Hawaii last year. They are both in bathing suits and she is in a very revealing bikini.)
I told the complaining employee that the photo did not violate any of our policies and that it could stay. (I did not mention her own photo). She seemed ready for my response and immediately demanded removal of the photograph as a “religious accommodation.” A few minutes later, I got a phone call from human resources telling me that there was a complaint. The HR lady warned me not to retaliate. An investigation is getting started.
Am I naïve to think that I am in the clear here? What would Evil Skippy do in this situation? (I need a smile and some venting). And what would Jim do? (I need the professional alternative!)
— “Sue” (Keep me anonymous, please!)
Hmmmmm . . . What would Evil Skippy do? You have given me a merchandising idea – “WWESD?” bracelets. I think every manager should have one. Just make sure I get the royalties for using my name. In the meantime, I know exactly what I would do. Since the woman feels that exposure to the photo attacks her religious beliefs, I would insist that she:
- Cancel her cable subscription. If the engagement photo threatens her, what would happen if she saw something truly steamy? So many terrible things show up on HBO and Showtime these days! Sodom! Gomorrah!
- Stay in her house at all times. She might stumble upon two men or two women holding hands if she ventures out into the world. The horror!
- Stop grocery shopping. Have you seen the magazine covers at the check-out stand? Despicable!
- Get her mind out of the gutter. If the sight of two men – fully clothed – makes her think about gay sex, she needs therapy. This lady misses the sad irony that the guys’ photo offends her yet she is displaying herself in an itsy bitsy teeny weenie bikini. (Please tell me that there were polka dots!)
— Evil Skippy
Ahem. Venting can be good for our emotional well-being, but let’s remember to keep job security in mind. Saying any of these things to the employee who complained would be unprofessional and evidence of retaliation. Nonetheless, Evil Skippy’s suggested approach recognizes an important fact — the employee’s complaint is not reasonable. Here is why:
- The two men are just standing together.
- The two men are fully clothed.
Even if the men were in bathing suits – Speedos for that matter – the employee’s complaint would not be reasonable. Why? She has a similar photo of her own on display. Other employees who have not put up revealing photographs of themselves might have a good argument that they are reasonably offended, but not this lady. You don’t have a reasonable concern if you are engaging in the same type of conduct that you are complaining about. (As for those hypothetical employees with complaints – whether their complaints would be reasonable depends on just how revealing the bathing suits are. It has nothing to do with the fact that the people depicted in the photo are two men, two women, one of each or open to question).
So, what should you do? First, engage your internal GPS and find the high road. Go ahead and fantasize about “WWESD?”, but don’t say any of those things out loud. One of the foundations of harassment and discrimination laws in the U.S. of A. is that every employee has a right to make a complaint without suffering from retaliation so long as the employee is not lying. (In other words, you can be wrong or even stupid if you sincerely feel offended, even if you are being a twit). While you certainly should not ask the male employee to take down his photo, you also should not treat the woman who complained with anything other than respect. You do not have to respect her– just as she does not have to respect you — but you do need to conduct yourself in a respectful manner. (So does the woman who complained, but we are talking about you right now).
Once your feet are firmly planted on the high road, cooperate with any investigation. Assuming that you have told Evil Skippy the whole story, you should be fine. The facts as stated in your letter do not suggest that the employee is entitled to any accommodation and you have done nothing to interfere with the employee’s religious views. (The duty to accommodate an employee’s religion means an employer may be required to make reasonable adjustments to the work environment that will allow the employee to practice his or her religion. Your employee does not need to have the photo removed in order to practice her religion.)
I say that you are fine because you took the complaint seriously (by immediately inspecting the photograph) and you promptly responded (by telling her that the photo was consistent with company policy). After she complained to HR, you conducted yourself in a professional manner and did nothing to retaliate against her.
The next thing you should do is celebrate. Isn’t it wonderful that the harassment laws include the “reasonable” requirement? Think about the nightmare that the work world would be if employers were required to take action simply because someone was offended by something. Yikes!