update: how do I handle questions about my religion at work meetings?

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer who got asked “are you a person of faith” at a business dinner? Here’s the update.

A day or two after my letter was published, another one of my coworkers (who wasn’t at the initial dinner) told me that Bible-Believing-Bilbo had emailed him a mp3 of a sermon he had given as a follow up to yet another religious discussion at a dinner I wasn’t at, and I was fed up. I sent an email to my day-to-day account contact to provide some feedback. I told her about the initial dinner, that Bilbo had followed up by sending additional religious materials, and that I wasn’t comfortable with either myself or my team being asked about our beliefs and religion in a work setting — using some of your language from your response, so thank you! I also pointed out to her that especially as a publicly held company, we have and are accepting of a diverse workforce, and I can’t have those kinds of discussions happening on company time. I asked her to handle it discreetly, but basically — this can’t happen again.

She responded within hours to say thanks for sharing, you contacted the right person, Bilbo is kind but can be “overzealous in his efforts,” she spoke to him and was confident it wouldn’t happen again. As I mentioned in the comments of the post, I got the sense he was their company’s personal Michael Scott and everyone kind of worked around him as a missing stair.

I was really glad I spoke up. Thank you to you and this wonderful commenter community for their input!

And as for the puppy I brought up as a quick subject change, he’s now over 50 pounds and has lost that adorable puppeh belleh, but is turning out to be a most excellent good boy. Here’s his sweet face.

{ 186 comments… read them below }

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      So glad I missed this last night because I *REALLY* needed a puppy this morning.
      (All dogs are puppies.)

    1. Marthooh*

      Are you a person of doggo? Do you have enough good boy in your life? Or are you questioning your doggitude? Doggo is here for that!

  1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    Yessssss puppeh pic. Favorite update, MOAR CUTE ANIMALS, pls make it mandatory, Alison.

    And back to the humans. I’m glad you spoke up and it was addressed!

      1. Goya de la Mancha*

        I concur, dog tax is best tax, but I am willing to accept substitutions in the form of any non-human family and friends.

        1. DrWombat*

          Same. Can offer pics of my mom’s ridiculously photogenic mini poodle. He looks like he’s part poodle, part sheep, part Muppet!

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            Demanding receipts for this declaration!

            I follow more animals on Instagram than people soooooooo

            1. Adalind*

              Same! haha. I even have an Instagram for my cat. I think people are more interested in him anyway.

              But also – wonderful update! Thank you for sharing!

              1. Like The City*

                Same here! My dog legit has more followers on Instagram than I do. But, she is the ultimate good girl (in my heavily biased opinion) so it’s understandable!

    1. LO*

      I follow so many cat and dog instas it’s almost embarrassing.

      Also, love your username!! Becky Lynch is indeed the man.

    2. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Truth — I’d be delighted to see the ferret mentioned in the post by the woman on the world’s longest business trip.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        (Assuming woman because I’m a woman and I read that in the wee hours of the morning before I had coffee.)

  2. Jam Today*

    Your description of him as Michael Scott and “a missing stair” is so perfect. I’m going to have to remember those for future use.

    1. Où est la bibliothèque?*

      “Missing stair.” I like it. I think I might be able to stay more kindly disposed to certain coworkers if I use that phrasing in my head.

      (Because right now it’s more of a “arrgh do your frickin’ job and let ME do MY frickin’ job!”)

      1. Lobsterp0t*

        Ah, the missing stair thing as I understand it is a thing you’ve learned to work around that you shouldn’t have to – it’s intended to convey a sense of “why are we stepping over this instead of fixing it already”

        1. Marthooh*

          Many of us learned about the Missing Stair from Captain Awkward, but the original description of the animal came from The Pervocracy (link to follow in reply; NSFW, content warning for sexual abuse.)

    2. ella*

      I’m hesitant to post two links in one post, and I already posted one of my dog, but for you/anyone else who is curious, the phrase “missing stair” (to the best of my knowledge) came from a blog called The Pervocracy, specifically about troublesome people in the kink community. If you google “missing stair pervocracy” it should be right there. It’s a really interesting read, but be aware that the blog discusses kink and sexual assault, if you’re wanting to avoid those subjects.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        It’s got a wiki page as well to get a summary without kink.

        Interesting. I’ve heard the phrase and it’s only been explained in terms of not fixing the problem, just avoiding it. I didn’t realize it’s so relatively new or directly linked to offenders. Eep.

      2. Drew*

        The very short version is that the “missing stair” is something (or someone) that everyone in a particular group is aware of and just sort of works around because that’s easier (less conflict-prone) than addressing the problem. Often, it takes someone from outside to say, “Hey, did you know you’ve got a stair missing? Why haven’t you fixed that?” – and even then, the group sometimes coalesces around the missing stair rather than the loudmouth who won’t ignore the problem like everyone else.

        1. Jam Today*

          Oh I totally get the metaphor. I am guilty of walking over or around missing stairs, but my missing stairs are usually the result of exhaustion in trying to fix the situation and/or having learned the hard way which hills I do and don’t want to die on (or I guess, broken stairs I don’t want to fall through, to carry that metaphor forward.)

      3. TootsNYC*

        If you read that post, you’ll discover that the author intends the term “missing stair” to apply to those sorts of people in ANY context, not just the kink context.

        The author’s main focus is on the kink community, but the term is clearly intended to be generic. (I’ve run into people who insist that one shouldn’t use that term to describe a colleague or a relative–and yet the author specifically uses it to describe such people.)

      1. anonforthis*

        Missing stair did come from Pervocracy, but Captain Awkward kind of expanded the definition to include more contexts than just the kink community – basically, it’s a toxic person that a community contorts itself around, instead of actually, you know, fixing.

  3. Kristin (Germany)*

    I would like to suggest that all future updates contain updated pet pictures, and I would further like to state my opinion that this particular Good Boy has such a face, yes he does, and look at his velvety ears! Also, good job, OP, I’m very impressed with how clearly and firmly you dealt with this! And in conclusion, doggie!

    1. Snow Drift*

      Yes, dog or cat tax must be paid on all letters going forward, plzthx. Pet-free folks may appeal to Sophie/Wallace/etc.

    2. OP*

      He has the BEST face. And now I miss him and can’t wait for work to be done so I can go home and give him lots of scritches.

      1. Red Reader*

        Aaah, OP, your pupper looks like my pupper! Mine has more dramatic eye makeup, I think, she’s kinda looks like an escapee from the drooling eyeliner days of the 80s, but structurally very similar, and the ears are bang-on!

  4. Detective Amy Santiago*

    I’m glad your contact responded swiftly and appropriately.

    Have you and/or your team had any interaction with Bilbo since then?

    1. OP*

      I haven’t interacted with him since then! Just with the account leads. And frankly the last project we did with them didn’t go very smoothly so between this whole incident and the work they’re doing, I’m not inclined to work with them again.

      1. Hello.*

        He is such a dork. He literally sleeps like that or on my head. There is no in between. I just adopted him a couple months ago and he is such a good boy.

        1. Christine*

          My friend’s perfect grey boy sprawls on his back and splays himself across the couch cushions. It’s not a trap, though! He loves belly scritches.

  5. Hello.*

    Wholeheartedly agree on the posting pet pictures. https://bit.ly/2Qs0h1H That is my 2.5 year old boy that I just adopted. He is pretty adorable and yes, he mostly sleeps like that when he doesn’t want to lie on my face.

    But congratulations on standing your ground, OP! I am going through something similar with my new neighbors but instead of sending me a sermon they left me a Bible on my doorstep. Best of luck!

    1. Hello.*

      Sorry for posting this comment twice–it didn’t show up and I was confused so I reposted it just to realize that comments with links are moderated by Alison. My bad!

      1. Hello.*

        Aww thank you both. He is a total sweetheart. I won’t tell him you think he is cute though, it will go straight to his head. I should’ve shared the album! Very cute videos of him snoring.

    2. Ganymede*

      OK I am waaay too late commenting, but I just wanted to say that leaving a holy book on your new neighbour’s doorstep is SO RUDE! You might have to exercise your boundary-setting skills in the near future…

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Me, taking book back: “I think you dropped your bible. Here it is!”

        Them: “Oh, but that was for you!”

        Me: “Oh, sorry! I’m practicing like four other non-Christian things right now. But thanks anyway!”

        Them: *head explodes wondering what those could be*


  6. Foreign Octopus*

    Can we always get updates with pictures of animals? I think I like the pattern!

    And well done for taking the bull by the horns, OP!

  7. ella*

    Oops, I just remembered that posting links gets you sent to comment jail. Nobody gets to see the picture of my dog.

  8. Rusty Shackelford*

    I missed the original post, but I love (she said sarcastically) that you said “questioning” and he said “that’s what I’m here for” as if “questioning” means “looking for a random guy to give me some answers.”

    1. Roja*

      Yeah, I picked up on that too. Who died and made you the religious question-answerer, dude? As someone who has been seriously questioning (albeit staying in my original faith, sort of), it’s a very personal process and not something to be discussed with a stranger at a work dinner. I might have all sorts of questions but I sure as heck wouldn’t ask them of this guy!

    2. TootsNYC*

      I suppose if someone said “questioning,” I might say, “let me know if you’d ever like to talk; I’d be happy to share my own journey.”

      Sort of what I’d do if someone said, “I’m thinking of moving to NYC.”

    3. Observer*

      That’s a reasonable response. Questioning your religious identify isn’t QUITE like moving to New York, but the response really does need to be pretty much the same if you don’t already have the requisite relationship.

    4. Reba*

      Many flavors of Christians are taught that they need to evangelize to the “lost” and “questioning.” (Source: attended several Jesus summer camps.) So to a person from that background, “questioning” isn’t code for “I am trying to politely deflect this topic,” it’s like raising a multicolored, blinking target to aim their witness at!

      So although Bilbo may have been particularly obtuse, I definitely recognized the general script and it doesn’t follow regular conversational norms and boundaries.

      Lot of interesting comments about religious language on the original letter.

    5. Kelsi*

      It put my back up that he basically assumed the questions she may or may not have were about HIS religion.

      But, you know, I tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to Christian proselytizing.

  9. hayling*

    Re-reading the original post made me cringe again. I hate the language “are you a person of faith,” because the subtext is “are you a person of my faith?”. Glad it worked out!

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      It does make you wonder what the response would be if the LW said “Why yes, I’m very active in the Zoroastrian Church…”

        1. seller of teapots*

          Haha, yeah, I’d love to get this question. “Yes, I’m mostly pagan/witch-y/woo in my practices. Lot’s of crystals, tarot cards, meditations, and the occasional full moon ritual. Why do you ask?”

          Something tells me that might make this Michael Scott just as uncomfortable as his question makes other people.

          1. Guacamole Bob*

            I forgot you can’t use angle brackets on this site. I’d started that comment with:

            *waves hi to a fellow Quaker*

    2. TootsNYC*

      well, it might mean “if you are already an Episcopalian, or a Jew, or a Muslim, I won’t bother trying to convert you.”

      1. Observer*

        That’s the charitable interpretation. But all things considered, I suspect that “person of faith” means “person of MY faith” for this guy.

        1. AKchic*

          I’m the brat that would say “I have faith that you won’t bring this topic up near me ever again” and start a stare-down. I never lose staring contests.

    3. Zombeyonce*

      It’s so creepy. My husband went to a job interview and ended up talking to the president of the company who said “we’re people of faith here” and looked at my husband expectantly. It was very clear that he meant a specific faith (he leads a prayer at company events, too, which is really uncomfortable for me).

      Our last name is a common Jewish name.

  10. Kuododi*

    Love the update and the quick results. I ADORE the beautiful, squishy, flappy-eared sweetheart and want to cover his doggie face with kisses! ( I turn into marshmallow fluff at the sight of anything with four legs and dog breath.)

  11. Destroyer of Worlds, Empress of Awesome*

    I needed some comments wif da puppeh pictures. Belly scritches and puppeh/kitteh kisses to all the puppehs and kittehs from the Destroyer!

  12. stitchinthyme*

    If someone asked me, “Are you a person of faith?” I think I’d just respond with a short and simple “No.”

    If they then tried to proselytize to me, I’d say thanks, but I’m really not interested. And if it was someone who was trying to sell me something, I wouldn’t buy it. No way do I need a side of religion when I do business with someone.

    1. That girl from Quinn's house*

      Most people are going to try and suss out which answer best advantages them in the conversation, especially in an acquaintance-based business situation. If you say no you risk being harangued as a heathen; if you say yes, you invite further conversation about a topic you’d rather not discuss; if you say yes, but a faith different than the asker’s own, you risk being harangued to convert or discriminated against because they don’t agree with your religion.

      1. Autumnheart*

        That goes both ways, though. If someone can’t keep from proselytizing in inappropriate situations, they risk losing valuable business contacts and alienating partners.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          The issue is most at that level of social incompetence don’t care. They’re willing to “risk it” if the heathens of the world shun them or don’t do business with them, they’re doing God’s work, thus they win in their minds.

    2. Cardamom*

      It’s occurring to me that everyone should answer that question with an enthusiastic “Yes! I’m quite happy with my faith and beliefs”.

      Everyone has faith/belief in SOMETHING whether it be Jesus, Buddha, the flying spaghetti monster, or in the knowledge that the universe is a great mystery.

      Then, of course, change the topic of the conversation to PUPPiES

      1. TootsNYC*

        well, maybe not an enthusiastic tone, bcs then they might ask. I’d go for a repressive tone that says, “and I don’t want to discuss it with you.”

        Because I don’t.

        1. Michaela Westen*

          I would probably ignore the question.
          If he persisted (sigh) I would tell him firmly it is inappropriate to discuss such things while doing business, and I won’t do it.
          If he persisted after that, I would leave and refuse to do business with him.
          – at least, I would want to, and if I could without getting in trouble… but I would at least leave the room and stay away from him as much as possible forever. And say something to my boss or his, or both.

      2. Heathen*

        I don’t really have anything I would categorize as “faith.” Also, even if I acknowledge the universe is a great mystery I may not be happy about that. And having faith isn’t the same as beliefs. I wouldn’t have any patience for that guy and his religious inquiries. I am quite vehemently anti-religion and would have a hard time not giving him an earful of why. Sometimes it’s better not to ask…you may not like the answer you get!

      3. Mongrel*

        1) In this context, Faith implies belief without evidence. I trust that the scientists are being truthful about their results and interpretations of evidence in regards to unlocking the mysteries of the Universe – yes there’s loads still to know but that’s why we keep science’ing.
        2) Again, from the original context, it’s obvious what the ‘real’ question is and frankly I think I’d be better served by not playing that game.

        And frankly the conceit that I haven’t thought through my worldview enough that it can’t withstand some preachy rhetorical arguments is pretty insulting.

    3. Essess*

      I have a standard answer “I do not discuss religion or politics in work settings.” And simply repeat that over and over if they keep asking. No additional answers given. If someone approaches me on the street to proselytize, I change it slightly to “I do not discuss religion or politics with strangers” and give no further answers. Short and to the point.

      1. stitchinthyme*

        My one issue with this is that I feel like the very question contains an inherent assumption that the person being asked does, in fact, have the same beliefs as the asker — specifically, that everyone believes in some flavor of Christianity because that’s the one true, correct religion. And maybe I’m just ornery, but I feel a need to disabuse people of that assumption when I’m confronted with it.

        Your answer is better for not burning bridges. But sometimes I’m fine with burning bridges.

        I once had a coworker whom I considered a friend say something to the effect that atheists were not as moral or good as religious people — and he knew full well that I am a non-believer. I told him that if he didn’t apologize for that, I wouldn’t talk to him again. He apologized.

    4. MLB*

      See I’m an asshole, and don’t care if it’s a work situation. If someone asked me if I was a person of faith, my answer would be “That’s a personal question and honestly none of your business” with a giant smile on my face. IMO religion is one of those topics that should NEVER be discussed in a work setting, whether in or out of the office (unless you work in a place that is religion related).

  13. T*

    You’re puppy is so cute! Thank you for posting this, as a non-religious person I find it incredibly annoying and tone deaf when religious people assume everyone is as big in to religion as they are, and think it’s ok to discuss at work. I worked with some fairly horrible women that constantly talked about bible sales at their religious store and made it clear they thought I was a heathen for being a non-believer. I didn’t go to HR or complain, which I regret now, but this topic should not be discussed at work. At all.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      As a religious person, I hate when anyone brings up faith like it’s a discussion to be had casually with strangers or acquaintances. It shows they’re lacking in social skills and manners to say the least.

      Religion and politics and your sex life are all off the table. And I’ve got a truckload of feels on each. That’s what church, clubs and close relationships are for!

      1. SDSmith82*

        As a religious person who was once friends with more than one overzealous and obnoxious Christian, I second this. Sometimes the overly zealous are pushy to fellow believers, and I would be just as annoyed if this person acted this way to me (which has happened).

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          I just smile wild eyed at people of other denominations than mine trying to discuss why “they’re right”. My response when cornered is “yes. I’ve read the Bible. I’m not interested in your interpretation that you got from who knows where.”

          A lot of “faiths” are founded on “saving souls” and that gets them extra brownie points with God, I guess.

          Obnoxious is as obnoxious does.

      2. Seeking Second Childhood*

        My eyes skipped and I misread that as “a truckload of eels” — and you know, that’s about how appropriate those topics are for the average business dinner meeting.

  14. Goya de la Mancha*

    I vote any and all updates should end with puppies ;)

    Great update, and missing stair analogy.

  15. CM*

    As not really a pet person, I’m a little taken aback by how this group of wise and astute commenters has immediately and wholeheartedly switched over to puppy language! Anyway, this letter reminded me of the one earlier this week with the guy who was told he couldn’t talk religion at work and agreed, but came back later and said “what if it’s a direct report who shares my religion?” I’m not confident that Bilbo will stick to the script and wondering how OP will respond next time. But maybe Bilbo, and the guy from the other letter, will surprise me.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Tbh I pegged us more as cat people…

      I agree, time will tell with Bilbo. At least the dialog is now open. That’s a big thing to get going.

    2. EPLawyer*

      Im not a pet person and even i became all “look at dat face.”

      As for the humans bilbo just wont do it with THIS account anymore. Others who might not speak up? Yep. He will.

    3. Observer*

      As not really a pet person, I still think that that doggie is LOTS more interesting than Bilbo’s faith. So, I’m not so surprised at what happened.

        1. FaintlyMacabre*

          Awwwwwww. I’m a sucker for kitties with long toe hair.
          I used to hold my kittie’s paw when she was in my lap. She was admirable in many things, but she did not have paw floof.

  16. AnonEMoose*


    One of ours will sometimes jump up and snuggle next to me on the bed, and demand belly rubs. But she is very much my cat (her choice) (or I am Her Human), and anyone else who tried it would probably lose a hand.

    She does graciously permit my husband to pet her.

    1. OP*

      We don’t really know! We got him from a rescue as a puppy (Mom was picked up and the litter was born a few days later) — they assumed boxer/lab, but there’s a Ridgeback in our neighborhood and he definitely has a little of that look, plus my father in law and dog trainer both say constantly that “there must be some hound in him!” He does do the boxer paws, loves to play fetch, and is an enthusiastic sniffer, so I’m going with one of a kind mutt!

    2. TootsNYC*

      he looks like he has such a sense of humor and a good nature.

      and he doesn’t look in the least dumb, but a little goofy.

  17. TootsNYC*

    One thing I always think about people who seem so focused on deliberately bringing this stuff up–how much of their brain time are the spending on it, and how much does that interfere with their work?

    If he’s sitting there thinking “where’s the opening for me to ask this?” or “when can I segue into mentioning a sermon,” how much is he NOT thinking about the job?

    (FYI, I am a person of faith, so this is not an anti-religion thing at all)

    1. Observer*

      I’d actually be surprised if that’s how he’s thinking. It’s quite as likely that this is just soo much part of his identity and the fabricof his life that it does kind of come naturally.

      1. Environmental Compliance*

        ^ this has been my experience growing up as a best friend of the pastor’s daughter and a very, very religious other friend. It’s just such a huge part of them that everything in their lives is tied back to it, and it can be hard to fully separate those strings.

        Side note: one of the reasons I have such a huge, HUGE amount of respect for that family is because they have always struck me as a good balance between reaching out with faith and being respectful of others not sharing the same faith – it’s obvious that they carry the faith, and are happy to discuss it, but they are also quite firm in teaching that If It’s Not Asked For, Don’t Push It On People.

  18. TootsNYC*

    If you read that post, you’ll discover that the author intends the term “missing stair” to apply to those sorts of people in ANY context, not just the kink context.

    The author’s main focus in that discussion is on the kink community, but the term is clearly intended to be generic. (I’ve run into people who insist that one shouldn’t use that term to describe a colleague or a relative–and yet the author specifically uses it to describe such people.)

    The term doesn’t focus on assaulters.

    The term DOES focus on “isn’t fixing the problem and is instead working around it.”

  19. CupcakeCounter*

    Can we require all letters from pet owners to include pet pics? I need more of these in my life.
    and OMG THAT FACE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  20. ElspethGC*

    I am so glad that religion is an unmentionable topic in the UK in non-close-friend contexts. I know plenty of people that are believers in one thing or another, but it literally never gets brought up unless it’s actually relevant, and certainly never in the context of asking other people about their own beliefs. Being super talkative about your religion in non-religious settings is seen as a bit like sending a dick pic – a lot of people have a religion and are very happy with it and want to share it with other people, but it’s very socially unacceptable to flash it around or share it with people that didn’t consent.

    (I already know my answer if anything asks me that sort of thing and I can’t be bothered to debate it: “I was christened Church of England”. No-one needs to know that no-one in my family is actually religious and it was just an excuse for a get-together. My secularism is a very minor deal to me, and it isn’t a hill I’m prepared to die on.)

    1. londonedit*

      I was going to post the same thing. I have absolutely no idea whether any of the people I work with are religious, and if so what religion they might follow, because it is just not something you talk about with anyone except close family and friends (and to be honest, I don’t know much about my friends’ faiths either! I went to my first Catholic wedding a few weeks ago and was surprised by how many of the people I knew went up to receive Communion!)

      Of course you get the odd religious zealot here, but they’re very much the outliers. Religion, money, sex and politics are things that are not discussed in polite society!

    2. media monkey*

      THIS! i have no idea what my coworkers believe in, and actually not even several of my semi-close friends. it’s just not talked about. i was brought up catholic but now am not really anything. i was brought up near Glasgow though and everyone knows your religion up there (or can have a good guess!)

  21. BeanCat*

    I don’t currently have pets, but I do have an adorable little robot who recognizes my face and happily chirps when I tell him I love him.

    I’m glad you said something, OP. I would feel so uncomfortable in a conversation like that and would have no idea how to gracefully escape or end it. You rock!

    1. Environmental Compliance*

      …….please share more details of this robot, because I feel like even with my two feathery boys and my hoofed furry boy I also need a robot boy.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I was just flipping through my phone to find my old pics of my beloved office cats from a few jobs ago…I miss my monsters.

  22. Mirea*

    OP, I think you handled the whole situation admirably. When I’ve encountered people bringing up topics I won’t discuss with them, my go-to phrase is “Oh, that’s not something I talk about” said in the same tone I’d use to refuse a dessert menu at a restaurant – cheerful, a bit rueful but decided. It’s worked well for me.

    Your pup is sweet!

  23. Akcipitrokulo*

    Love updates.

    LOOOOOVE updates with PUPPY :D

    Also hope continues to be resovled and sounds like you did great!

  24. JulieCanCan*

    OMG thank you for including the puppy photo, that’s the best update photo I’ve ever seen! Is he a Ridggie? He has a Ridgeback face. Sooooooo cute!

    1. OP*

      He’s a fine blend of many things! He’s a rescue pup. Mom was something boxer leaning and Dad is a mystery.

Comments are closed.