how to tell your boss he’s breaking the law

by Ask a Manager on March 21, 2009

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A reader writes:

I am the tech supervisor for a pharmacy. I am responsible for completing the monthly tech schedule. I also work only on weekends and Monday evenings.

Today, I told my boss that I was going to try and find coverage because I wanted to spend my daughter’s first Easter with her. He told me that if I could find coverage then it was fine, but he then said, “We have to have coverage, so if it is between Easter and work, which one is it going to be?” I did not answer the question and just looked at him.

In previous situations where an employee requested a day off and nobody would volunteer to cover, my boss would step in a talk to some of the employees and get the day covered. I would like for him to do the same for me for Easter, seeing as how I worked Easter last year, thinking I wouldn’t have to work it this year. But, my boss seems to think that Easter is not a true holiday and like it is not going to be a big deal if I do not find coverage.

I know that most people don’t make a big deal out of Easter, but my family does, and spending it with my family is VERY important.

So, if I do not find volunteer coverage, how do I politely tell my boss that I would like for him to talk to some of the employees and push for coverage for me? How do I politely convey to him that the answer to the question he asked me (Easter or work) is Easter with my daughter and family? Do you feel it was inappropriate of him to ask me that question? I was kind of offended and shocked when he asked me that. Should I say something? How do I approach this whole thing?

I wrote back to this reader and asked who the other techs report to. She replied, “I am their trainer and conduct their evaluations. I also manage them as far as minor/moderate personnel and performance issues go, but ultimately, they report to him. He is the director. I cannot demand that they work Easter and them have to do it.”

Federal law requires that employers “reasonably accommodate” an employee’s religious practices, unless doing so would cause undue hardship to the business. In a situation where an employee wants to take off a religious holiday and other employees can easily be scheduled to work that day, allowing you to take off Easter would fall under the “reasonable accommodation” portion of the law, assuming that you’re asking for the day off for reasons of religious practice.

Your boss is likely not even thinking of the law. He may not even be thinking of Easter as a religious holiday. Your job, then, is to point this out to him without coming across as overly aggressive or litigious. I would start out without getting into the law at all and would escalate only if it becomes necessary. First, I’d say something like this: “We talked recently about Easter and you asked me to pick between Easter and work. Generally work comes first for me, which I think you know, but in this case we are talking about my religion. Easter is a religious holiday for me, and I know there are many employees who don’t feel their religious practice requires them to observe it. I’d like to ask that we schedule them on Easter. In the past, you’ve asked people to work on days that someone else wanted off. Can you do the same here?”

If he refuses, then I’d say: “I think we’re actually required by federal law to make those sorts of accommodations for employees’ religious practices.” Note that use of “we” rather than “you.” The tone here is that you’re making a helpful, neutral observation about the law, and you are looking out for the store, not making a legal threat — say it the same way you’d say it if you were talking about another employee’s request. You do not want to sound like you’re hinting at any legal action. (You have the right to sound like that, of course, but it’s rarely good for your career.)

If he still refuses, you have a decision to make about how far you want to push this. If you want to push, I’d then say, “I hate having to frame it this way, but there’s actually a law about this. I think you know I’m not the legal action type, but we’re talking about what’s required by law.”

Now, some people will disagree with me about that “I’m not the legal action type” disclaimer, arguing that employees should assert their legal rights more forthrightly. And you’re absolutely entitled by law to do so — but your goal here is not just to assert the law but also to keep a good relationship with your employer. It is possible to do both, but not if you wield the law like a weapon. Fair or not, the reality is that few relationships are unaffected when legal threats are made. There are times when an employee may have no other choice, but when the question is “what is the best way to handle this in order to maximize my chances of a good outcome?” and not “what am I legally entitled to do?” then outright threats should be a last resort.

The law, by the way, is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

{ 12 comments }

Charles March 21, 2009 at 4:38 pm

Since I am not at all familiar with employment law, etc. I do have to ask – does having worked this same holiday before have any affect on whether the request has to be legally honored this time?

Just another HR lady... March 22, 2009 at 4:20 pm

Honestly, I think that this is just a simple matter of “the boss” not realizing/recalling that Easter is a religious holiday, as many people do not celebrate it as such. It has become much more of a secular holiday.

As long as you throw in the fact that you celebrate it as a religious holiday, and don’t “just want the day off”, I’m sure your boss will accomodate you. Sometimes people just need reminding about religious beliefs of others.

Anonymous March 23, 2009 at 2:01 am

I have to reiterate Charles’ point – the OP does not cite religion as the reason she wants to celebrate easter. She wants to spend Easter with her daughter and has framed the holiday as a family, rather than religious holiday.

Given that the initial request was along the lines of “can I have easter to spend with my family” and the OP worked easter last year, coming back to the boss with a “this is a religious thing” will make the OP sound disingenuous.

-EB

Anonymous March 23, 2009 at 5:42 pm

I agree with EB, the OP did not indicate this request was for religious observance but for family. I also agree with Charles, I don’t believe you can pick and choose when you observe your religion and when you don’t. That’s not fair to the employer. Certainly, allowance must be made for some who return to religion or change religions and wish to change their behavior accordingly.

Anonymous March 23, 2009 at 5:45 pm

I completely agree with EB on this one. This employee worked Easter last year and it comes across as if she wants to spend the day with her new child, and since Easter is a religious holiday, she’s using that as a defense. Be prepared for a comment like, “Easter wasn’t a big deal for you last year, so what exactly has changed?” My guess is what changed is that the OP had a child and wants to celebrate Easter in a secular fashion.

While religious preferences and commitments can change for individuals, and I understand being flexible, the OP comes across as being peeved that she might not get the day off to hang out with her kid, which isn’t a reason that necessitates accommodation.

So, what advice can we give this person? It’s a really tough call. You can try your best to get someone else to work the holiday and hope they volunteer, but pulling a “this is a religious observation and it needs to be observed” isn’t going to come off well. Would I as an employer want to question that? Probably not but that’s because I happen to think that a happy employee makes for a productive employee.

Unfortunately, if you’re the only supervisor who works on Sunday, it might not be reasonable to expect that there will be no supervision. So it’s kind of a crap shoot (which isn’t all that helpful). I don’t know the company history/background/needs for coverage, but do expect that your boss might say, “then come in couple hours late. We need you here.” That may very well be considered reasonable under the law, since last time I checked, an Easter Mass runs under 2 hours. You can’t sue them unless you can prove that you needed more time to observe your religious beliefs and that it was a reasonable accommodation that wouldn’t put the company in a tight spot. A family dinner and Easter egg hunt, my dear, does not count as “religious observation” in my book. Again, if an employee came to me with this, I might handle it somewhat differently as a manager given our culture, but throwing around words like “requirement under the law,” and “discrimination” rarely help anyone’s case.

Ask a Manager March 24, 2009 at 12:01 am

The way I look at it is, she wants to take off a religious holiday that she observes. I don’t think the law or the courts get into judging the nuances of someone’s religious commitment in cases like this. She says she wants to celebrate a religious holiday with her family — there’s no requirement that she spend it at church or in any other specific way; the way she observes it is personal, and I think simply wanting to observe it with her family meets the test of the law.

I don’t think having worked the holiday in past years needs to be a problem. Maybe she wasn’t comfortable pushing in years past, or maybe she feels more of a need to observe the holiday now that she has a child, or whatever.

Anonymous March 24, 2009 at 4:32 pm

AAM, I disagree with you on this one (and this is a first for me, given that I’ve been a reader for two years).

http://www.eeoc.gov/types/religion.html

(this is where my argument comes from). Given the OP’s letter, I do not believe this is a sincerely held RELIGIOUS belief but that’s for her to know and her boss to find out. Regardless, reasonable accommodations could very well be an adjusted schedule. It’s a sticky situation that most smart employers would want to avoid completely, but the truth of the matter is I don’t buy that this person is really concerned about the religious part of Easter. She wants to hang out with her kid, which is all fine and well, but she could have pre-scheduled PTO, or a month ago started making adjustments. Easter is in only 2 weeks, and this may very well be a hardship for her employer.

I’m hoping that it all works out and someone else can work Easter because I really think if she goes to her employer claiming that she’s got a legal right to observe Easter, she’ll lose a bit of their respect. Not because she’s trying to have access to all of her rights, but because this seems like an excuse to be with her family. My advice is that if no one volunteers, to ask her boss to do what they normally do if this was another employee. I really advise against pulling the discrimination card or the religious observation card unless it is a truly religious thing for her.

Anonymous March 24, 2009 at 8:16 pm

I agree …that she loses the battle of it being a Religious holiday. It’s a pharmacy … and probably open 7 days a week. Given that her past employment history may support that she works on Sundays (she did last Easter). I would go with the approach that she worked last year and could she enlist his assistance in finding a win/win solution. She may be surprised at his willingness to work with her.

Ask a Manager March 25, 2009 at 12:26 am

If you guys are right that there’s no religious component to this for her, then I agree with you. I read her letter as meaning that there was — that that’s why it’s a big deal to her family. But if it’s not a religious thing, then yeah, we’ve got to approach it from a totally different angle.

class-factotum March 25, 2009 at 2:53 pm

This woman works only on weekends and Monday evenings. And now she wants to take one of those days off, which is a day that’s hard to cover. I don’t know when she wrote this letter, but it’s not as if Easter was a surprise. She should have given her boss a lot of notice on this and maybe she did.

Second. Her daughter’s first Easter? It’s not like the kid is going to notice. She’s maybe year old. I can see how the mom wants to spend time with the child, but it’s not important to the child.

I agree with the commenters who say that if this was such a religious issue, then why wasn’t it a big deal when she had to work Easter last year? The religious discrimination tack is the wrong approach to take. Appeal to the boss’ sense of family, talk to the co-workers, but don’t play the religion card, because it’s not valid here.

a. brown March 26, 2009 at 4:40 pm

It also sounds like she feels the boss has helped other employees in the past find coverage, but not her. But it also sounds like she’s just annoyed she’s not getting her way.

I doubt, though, that if she tried to ask off for religious reasons this year, any boss would say, “You weren’t concerned about Easter last year”. And it’s not like she’s suddenly observing some obscure holiday no one knows about– it’s Easter. If coverage can be found, give her a break.

class-factotum March 30, 2009 at 5:20 pm

I thought about this some more. If this person is so serious about her religion, why did she take a job where she works only on weekends and Monday evenings?

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