One of my employees is a self-professed, card-carrying atheist (those are her exact words). She is proud of her atheism and seems to be on a — pardon the expression — crusade against anything remotely related to religion. She threatens the company with discrimination lawsuits if we do not “honor her freedom from religion.” I am all for the Bill of Rights, tolerance and mutual respect, but I am about to turn into one of those supervisors who rolls their eyes and starts drinking in the stairwell due to my employee’s constant pressure to keep all religion out of the work place.
This morning, she sneezed. I said, “Bless you.” Not “God bless you,” just a blessing without any Deity whatsoever. My employee came into my office a few minutes later and lectured me about how disrespectful it was to say “bless” because it assumes the existence of a Supreme Being, yadda yadda yadda. I told her that this is a habit of mine, I never thought of it as being religious, no disrespect was intended, yadda yadda yadda. She replied that I should be more careful because she would have to talk to someone “higher up” if I did not respect her wishes “to be free from religious expressions at work.”
I need some Evil Skippy words to handle this matter. I do not want to turn into a secret drinker. I can’t afford it.
— Trying to be a Respectful Supervisor
Dear Trying –
The next time she sneezes, tell her to cover her mouth and to stop spreading her germs all over the place. (I was going to recommend saying, “Go to hell, sneezer”, but that assumes a Deity and a Devil, so she would probably be offended.) Sheesh. At least you do not have to worry about her threat to go to someone “higher up.” She must mean a mere mortal and not a Supreme Being, right?
— Evil Skippy
P.S. Stop saying “yadda yadda yadda.” That is so last century.
No one knows for sure how the custom of saying “Bless you!” after a sneeze started — you can check the epitome of scholastic research (Wikipedia) if you doubt my word. Even if the custom’s ancient origin had a connection to religion, I agree with Evil Skippy that what you said was not religious. Just as we tend to say “please” and “thank you” in certain situations, we tend to say “bless you” or “gesundheit” when a person sneezes. What you said was a polite reflex and your employee knows it. There was nothing religious intended and no reasonable person would have thought you were saying something holy. Of course, she does not sound like a reasonable person.
Do you have an obligation to stop saying “bless you” to your employee? No. You have not engaged in a religious practice and she does not have a legitimate complaint. Would it be a good idea for you to try not saying “bless you” to her? Sure. It takes little effort from you and will allow you to concentrate on your real work instead of your employee’s crusade. Just because you do not “have” to honor her request does not mean you should revel in your power to non-religiously bless her.
In other words, this is a silly complaint and you have devoted enough mental energy to it. If you (or anyone else) says “Bless you” and her underwear becomes re-knotted, encourage her to talk to your manager or human resources. You have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide. In fact, you should let your manager or human resources know what has happened so far just in case the employee continues to press the matter. Documentation is a good thing, right?
Continue to treat your employee with respect, whether or not she is being reasonable. Respect is contagious and that is nothing to sneeze at.