Corporate culture is important. So is conflict resolution in the workplace, right? What happens when you implement a program to improve on both issues and your employees are not on board with it? What do you do? Can you discipline them? Maybe. If you discipline the employees that don’t follow the program can they claim religious discrimination? Wait a minute. A conflict resolution program isn’t a religion. How can it be religious discrimination? Are there actually cases that say so? Well yes, as a matter of fact — two. (OK, they were combined so I guess it’s really one now). I admit the facts are strange, but we can learn a lot from them, so bear with me and read on… The case is EEOC v. United Health Programs of America, Inc. and Cost Containment Group Inc., No. 14-CV-03673, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39587 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 6, 2020). Here’s a nutshell-version of what went down:
A parent and subsidiary company decided to address corporate culture issues in 2007. So they hired the CEO’s aunt. So far not a problem. The CEO’s aunt developed a program called– wait for it–“Onionhead”. (Seriously, I’m not making this up.) The company leadership and the CEO’s aunt said it was a multi-level conflict resolution program. The employees said it was a religion. How can Onionhead be a religion? Well here are a few examples provided by the employees: the program required them to use candles instead of lights to prevent demons from entering the workplace; conduct chants and prayers in the workplace; and respond to emails relating to G-d, spirituality, demons, Satan, and divine destinies. Still not convinced? The record also cited hand-holding prayers, forced hugging, visual Onionhead paraphernalia and literature, incense, and an out of state retreat for a “spa weekend. That does sound kind of like religious beliefs and practices. The employees also alleged that if they either rejected Onionhead’s beliefs, or already had religious beliefs that conflicted with Onionhead, they were terminated, but employees who followed Onionhead were not disciplined as harshly. In 2011 and 2012, three employees filed charges with the EEOC.
The EEOC found probable cause of discrimination in 2014 and attempted to reach conciliation (settlement) with the employer(s) but could not do so, resulting in a lawsuit in federal court in the Eastern District of New York. The court granted the EEOC’s motion for summary judgment on the specific issue of whether, under the specific facts, Onionhead was a religion. Initially a jury awarded the employees a verdict of $5.1m that was reduced to $1.8m. The employer(s) then moved for judgment as a matter of law (i.e. notwithstanding the verdict) and either a new trial or further reduction of the verdict. A good portion of the damages were for emotional distress, and the employer(s) argued that the amount was inappropropriate.
The court denied the employers’ motion. The court felt that there was ample evidence that the employer(s) created a hostile work environment based on religious beliefs, stating in its opinion that the record before it was “replete with examples of the severity and pervasiveness of Onionhead’s religious practices and imagery, in the workplace, the unreasonable interference with the employees’ work and the alteration of work conditions for the worse.” OK, now I admit that most cases don’t have such — well, weird–facts. That, however, doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t learn something here, so I’m going to have a go at some takeaways. Here they are:
- You absolutely can, and should implement programs and procedures for conflict resolution and improving company culture. With that said, make sure they don’t impose religious practices or beliefs on employees. That means that you should leave out references to G-d, Satan, the devil, hell or anything similar;
- Proceed with care when disciplining employees for not embracing beliefs included in such programs. Even if your programs do not include facially religious beliefs, they still could conflict with an employee’s own religious beliefs, whereby disciplining them might support hostile work environment allegations;
- Take EEOC investigations seriously and try to settle them before they become lawsuits. I didn’t mention these points above, but the charge started with 3 employees, and the EEOC discovered about 7 others subjected to similar treatment, resulting in 10 plaintiffs.
I think that’s enough points for now, so until next time…
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