The Ethical Dilemma: A Customer Invited Me to Church. How Should I Respond?

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Taking Work to Church: I work at a bank in Texas. The company I work for is very accepting and loves to tell its employees that they give you “the freedom for you to be you.” I truly believe that the company strives for this, but they are very concerned with the customer experience as well.

So when a very nice and well-meaning customer asked me if I had a home church and invited me to an Easter brunch and service, I’m sad to say that I was afraid to tell her I’m an atheist. Instead I told her I’m not very spiritual, and she still insisted I stop by.

How do I handle being true to my beliefs while trying to not upset a customer when her faith is clearly very important to her?

—Beyond the Call of Duty

Dear Beyond,

As everyone who seeks advice from a weekly column should realize, you can’t count on a timely response. This year’s Easter eggs have already been delivered by chocolate bunnies, so I hope you found a diplomatic way not to show up at this nice lady’s church.

Brunch would sound nice—if it weren’t for all the dangers inherent in crossing the work/personal life border.

And that’s really what this is all about. You need to maintain professional boundaries. You have to strike a balance between being businesslike and being friendly, pleasant, and personable (as opposed to personal) with your customers and colleagues, without getting entangled to the point where your privacy and comfort zone are breached.

You simply can’t allow yourself to be sucked into fraternizing with customers outside of work and against your inclinations. It’s the same as if a customer were suggesting dinner while his wife’s away or tries to sell you an encyclopedia (remember those?). You need to deflect, not engage. When asked about religion, simply repeat your “I’m not very spiritual” or “I’m not very religious” mantra—or say nothing in response—and then immediately change the subject.

You might want to come up with (or make up) something you commit to every Sunday morning, such as going for a run or completing the crossword puzzle. If necessary, knock your paperclips on the floor, suddenly remember that your boss wants to see you as soon as you finish this transaction, or take an urgent bathroom break—anything to divert an unwelcome line of chatter. Or better still, answer the way politicians do: with non-sequiturs. For instance, when asked “what church do you attend?” you answer “have you been to the new bowling alley downtown? It’s just great. And I tried the kale salad at the diner. Do you want two five’s and a ten or four five’s or two ten’s or twenty singles?” Better to be perceived as ditzy or deaf—or even a bit stiff if you opt to stick strictly to your job script (“Thank you for asking. May I help you with anything else?”)—than to get enmeshed in none-of-their-business.

One of the joys of living in New York City, and probably many other fast-paced places, is that no one seems to have the time or interest to chat and poke into other people’s lives. It’s just: “Have a nice day. Next!”