A reader writes:
The company that I work for is fairly conservative and has warned us that they are implementing a new policy where everyone will have to sign a legal document stating we uphold our company’s values. We all had to sign something similar when we were hired, but there is a catch now — we can be fired if our friends and family don’t follow the company’s values. For example, if I go out to eat and my family member has alcohol with dinner and someone at my company sees me with them, I could get fired for not promoting an alcohol-free environment even if I don’t drink. If we don’t sign, we have been told that we do not have a job. When I talked to my boss about the situation and asked if my employment could be terminated for not signing this document, they said that they hadn’t heard we could be fired for not signing and would investigate. I am currently waiting to hear back.
I feel like this is such an overreach of professional boundaries. My family should not be held accountable to my employer and shouldn’t be worried that their actions (smoking, drinking, who they start or end relationships with, etc.) could terminate my employment.
I work in higher education, affiliated with a certain religion. I didn’t think that this would be a problem when I was hired due to my previous work with this institution, and not everyone who works here believes exactly what the institution states in its mission. If they haven’t felt ostracized before this, I’m sure they do now!
I would start looking for a new job, but I haven’t been here for two years and don’t want to look like a job hopper (this is my first non-retail job). Am I overreacting or is this truly overstepping professional boundaries?
What?! No, this is not normal. This is outrageously not normal, and it’s offensive in its over-reaching.
So if you have family members who enjoy a drink with dinner, you need to … not have any contact with them if you want to keep your job?
So, in answer to your question: Definitely not normal, definitely not okay, definitely outrageous.
She pointed out that the first issue is whether the education institution is actually exempt from Title VII’s religious discrimination requirements. The law does exempt religious organizations and allows them to prefer members of their religion in hiring and other employment practices. It also allows educational institutions to “hire and employ employees of a particular religion if such school, college, university, or other educational institution or institution of learning is, in whole or in substantial part, owned, supported, controlled, or managed by a particular religion or by a particular religious corporation, association, or society, or if the curriculum of such school, college, university, or other educational institution or institution of learning is directed toward the propagation of a particular religion.”
The EEOC goes into more detail about what this means:
Under established case law, this Title VII exception applies only to those institutions whose “purpose and character are primarily religious.” That determination is to be based on “[a]ll significant religious and secular characteristics.” Although no one factor is dispositive, significant factors that courts have considered to determine whether an employer is a religious organization for purposes of Title VII include: whether the entity is not for profit, whether its day-to-day operations are religious (e.g., are the services the entity performs, the product it produces, or the educational curriculum it provides directed toward propagation of the religion?); whether the entity’s articles of incorporation or other pertinent documents state a religious purpose; whether it is owned, affiliated with or financially supported by a formally religious entity such as a church or other religious organization; whether a formally religious entity participates in the management, for instance by having representatives on the board of trustees; whether the entity holds itself out to the public as secular or sectarian; whether the entity regularly includes prayer or other forms of worship in its activities; whether it includes religious instruction in its curriculum, to the extent it is an educational institution; and whether its membership is made up of coreligionists.
So there’s the background. Now here’s Donna on how this applies to your situation:
As you can see, the determination is very fact-specific. But let’s assume, for purposes of this question, that the institution is indeed exempt. What about association? Can you be fired for associating with people who do not follow your religious beliefs? The answer is, like with most legal questions, maybe. If the issue is purely a religious one, and if they apply the prohibition against associating with those who do not follow your beliefs to everyone, then they may be allowed to discriminate against you based upon your association with others who violate their religious principles. However, if, for instance, they apply the rule to women but not men, African-Americans but not whites, or the disabled but not the non-disabled, they will be liable for discrimination.
The other issue will be whether your association is covered by another protected category. The religious discrimination exemption does not exempt these employers from race, age, sex, national origin, disability, pregnancy, or other Title VII anti-discrimination requirements.
So let’s talk about situations where this prohibition might end up being illegal.
Disability discrimination: If the alcohol prohibition prevents you from organizing and running an AA group or a drug or alcohol treatment program, then they could be engaging in disability discrimination.
Race discrimination: If the rules prevent you from counseling ex-felons, then that prohibition might end up preventing you from associating with African-Americans or other minorities because those groups are disproportionately imprisoned in this country.
National origin: If the rules prevent you from participating in an interfaith group with, say, Muslims, then it’s possible the discrimination could be national origin discrimination. For instance, if others are allowed to associate with Jews, Hindus or Buddhists, then the prohibition is clearly being applied to associating with people of Middle Eastern origin and not to others equally.
I also wonder how they will enforce these rules. If they start following employees around, some of their actions might violate state anti-stalking or privacy laws. Another issue will be whether this employee lives in a state that protects employees’ legal off-duty activities. While the religious exemption might apply to the employee’s own activities, I’ve never seen any case law as to whether a state law might operate to prohibit firing for association with others who engage in legal off-duty activities.
In general, I’d say that this sounds like a terrible policy that has almost no chance of being evenly applied, so this employer may end up in trouble under discrimination or other laws despite any religious exemption they may have. As to whether they can say “sign or be fired,” that may depend on the state’s contract law. But I suspect this employer will be able to get away with firing employees who refuse to sign.
Whether they will be able to keep the employees they forced to sign this terrible policy will be another issue. I suspect they will lose many good employees over this intrusive and ridiculous policy. If I were this employee, I’d start looking for another job now before the mass exodus begins from this awful employer.
Me again, heartily seconding Donna’s final line. You can simply explain to prospective employers that your current employer has started applying religious restrictions to the people you associate with. Believe me, no one is going to question why you’re leaving.