Thursday, May 03, 2007

Ms. Theologian advises skipping the break room

Dear Ms. Theologian,

I work at a day care facility that has a Christian religious affiliation. Most of my coworkers are evangelical, and think that I am one of them. (I'm a Christian, but I'm a liberal Christian.) As such, I agree with many of our shared principles (kindness, love, compassion), but often am taken aback by their assumptions. My coworkers have decorated the break room with many right to life posters, stickers, and slogans, including those of the abstinence only movement. The last election was absolutely hell for me, as they were all loyal bushies. I feel increasingly alienated at work. However, I love working in the nursery and with the babies, but I don't seem to be able to be myself at work. Do you think I should look for a new job? I do love my work.

--Sometimes I think I'm the Only Liberal at Work

Dear Only Liberal,

First of all, that sounds like a lovely welcoming break room where you can kick off your shoes and let down your hair.

Here's the short answer to your spirituality and the workplace conundrum: ignore the coworkers and find community elsewhere, find a new job with more compatible coworkers, or make it your goal in life to change your workplace culture. Three options.

Oh, I don't see you! I don't see you! Ignoring the coworkers' behavior may be hard, but you could start by staying out of the break room. Ms. Theologian hopes that you find community at your church and in friends and family, all of whom may be more compatible with you. If you can't ignore the coworkers, you might look for a new job. One of the wisest pieces of career advice Ms. Theologian has heard of late is when evaluating a job, always look at who your coworkers will be. And remember the No Asshole Rule. Because, of course, coworkers can make or break the job regardless of the actual work involved.

This advice resonated with Ms. Theologian because it seems to her that many of the questions people ask her (and much of the unhappiness at work) is a result of a bad fit with workplace culture and coworkers. Whether it's a competitive work environment or a culture of shallowness or a culture that offends, many people will be unhappy if they do not generally agree with the principles and behavior in their workplace culture. And you often see those principles represented in your coworkers (and their posters, stickers, and slogans). Yet, people get very preoccupied by the actual skills they need to do the job, and not the people. Go figure.

An Aside about Religious Accomodation But what about religious accommodation here? Aren't you being forced out because you're not the same kind of Christian? Aren't these people evangelizing at work? Isn't some of this illegal? Not really. Religious accommodation is pretty much summed up here:

What does federal law require of an employer? Federal law requires an employer
to “reasonably accommodate” an employee’s religious observances, practices and
beliefs. However, an employer need not “reasonably accommodate” if the employer
can show that accommodation would cause an “undue hardship” on business.

Ms. Theologian doesn't think this entirely applies to you. If your church required that you pray twice a day, your employer might have to accommodate this, if it didn't mean hiring a replacement for you (undue hardship). If your religious beliefs required that you didn't eat pork, your employer could not force you to eat pork, and might, possibly, have to provide something else for you to eat depending on whether your employer was a decent human being, the cost involved, and your willingness to sue.

However, just because religious accommodation doesn't seem to apply doesn't mean that it's a good management practice to allow (or encourage?) employees to decorate with fetus imagery. Many workplaces suffer when management makes assumptions about how "Everyone supports Bush" or "Everyone loves oak trees, so let's protect it" or "Everyone owns a gun." Because you know what assuming does....

Changing Workplace Culture Ms. Theologian didn't recommend this for you, because you didn't seem particularly moved in this direction. But it's an option. Sometimes Ms. Theologian wonders where we would be without visionaries who change culture by introducing tolerance, fairness, and equity into the discussion, such as Martin Luther King or Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Bishop Spong. So, if this is the direction you feel pulled in, write back and we'll brainstorm on how to make this happen.

-Ms. Theologian

P.S. If you'd like to write to Ms. Theologian, send an email to ms dot theologian at Gmail dot com.