The Ethical Dilemma: How to Avoid Religion at Work

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Avoiding Religion at Work: I am a Midwestern transplant to a small Southern town. While I have encountered anti-nontheism elsewhere, my boss and coworkers are overwhelming me with “good-natured” indoctrination attempts. I love my job, and I don’t want to leave, but my old standbys—“I don’t discuss religion at work” and “I feel that that’s a personal subject”—are being ignored because of my comparative youth. What is a helpful, peaceful way to set a healthy boundary?

—Avoiding the Subject

Dear Avoiding,

Ever hear the phrase “kill ‘em with kindness”? Sounds as though that’s the group strategy here. Or maybe this is such non-diverse community that it has never dawned on anyone that not everyone follows the popular faith or could possibly have any issue with it.

Since you love your job and don’t want to leave, you also don’t want to alienate your colleagues. You’ve been handling this pretty optimally already without the desired outcome, so I’m not optimistic that there’s much more you can do, or that you can expect any better results. But here are a couple approaches you might consider.

If your place of business has a human resources department, you could make an appointment for a private discussion. If there is no HR person, you could approach your boss. But be careful—it’s quite likely that the HR person or your boss has as much missionary zeal as the others. You could gently explain that religion is a very personal subject—and that it is illegal for religion to have a bearing on employment in secular places of business. You would be grateful if all employees could be reminded that it’s inappropriate to pressure anyone into religious discussions at work.

Once people have been counseled not to promote any faith in the workplace—if you actually manage to achieve that much support—you could reference that along with your stand-by lines. Then stick to your guns. Change the subject, walk away, immerse yourself in work, go to the bathroom, whatever—just don’t engage. But remain friendly, warm, and eager to participate in other topics of discussion.

Bear in mind your co-workers probably mean no harm, and this may just be their way of being welcoming and inclusive. Accept the fact that nothing you say or do is likely to change their default behavior—unless your unwavering resistance causes them to become cold or hostile. If you do start to encounter any job discrimination due to your refusal to discuss religion, document the evidence. You could have grounds for a legal case, and in that case you would want to enlist the services of the AHA’s legal center or another organization that protects church/state separation.

But that would be a last resort, only if things should turn very sour, which you hope to avoid. Your overriding goal is to keep things sweet, even if you have to tolerate smiling and nodding until your cheeks get cramps and you feel like a bobblehead.

Your best chance to remedy this situation is to find another job, in another area, or at least in an organization that is less faith-full. Every company has a culture, and even within the same industry and vicinity, the cultures of different companies can vary dramatically, so do your research to find a more amenable environment for yourself. Even if you love what you’re doing right now and don’t think you’ll ever want to leave, that glow is likely to fade as your colleagues keep on proselytizing. Look for a workplace where people are focused more on the bottom line and less on the heavenly horizon.