Opinion and Editorials and Diversity

EDITORIAL: Seek tolerance in the workplace

October 8, 2011

The facts in the employment discrimination lawsuit against Defender Direct are still being presented to the court, so it’s premature to draw conclusions. But the case serves to remind why employers need to tread carefully when religion is present in the workplace.

Kelly McCourt, who was a legal arbitrator at the fast-growing seller of security and satellite TV systems, claims she was fired after repeatedly saying she wasn’t interested in reading the daily Christian devotionals issued by President Marcia Raab.

Defender Direct counters that McCourt didn’t object to the devotionals. It also says her religious and personal beliefs had nothing to do with the firing, and denies her claim that she met or exceeded performance expectations.

It will be interesting to watch how the court comes down. Legal experts say that if she was fired for a different reason—even while mustering overwhelming evidence of discrimination—Defender Direct will likely win. In Indiana, she must show discrimination is the sole reason for the dismissal.

McCourt’s case could hinge on whether the company had legitimate business reasons for asking her to read the devotionals, and if her desire to not be confronted with the religious aspect of the devotionals were accommodated by eliminating the references while retaining the essential information.

Then again, the court might say the religious nature of the devotionals was uncalled-for in the first place.

Balancing the rights of employees and entrepreneurs like Defender Direct founder Dave Lindsey is tricky. Lindsey is clearly trying to live out his faith through such actions as flying employees to Mexico to build houses and tithing 10 percent of the company’s profits. Would that all other business owners be so devoted to giving back.

Yet, Lindsey and his lieutenants, along with other business owners and managers, need to be careful to draw the line at expecting the same religious motivation from employees. Secular companies should operate as strict meritocracies where employees are assured they will be rewarded for their performance, not their beliefs. Those who hold to different religious teachings—along with atheists and agnostics—should be treated the same as the most fervent Christian.

Ironically, coercion would run counter to a central tenet of mainstream Christian doctrine, namely freedom to choose one’s beliefs.

Whatever the facts turn out to be in the Defender Direct case, these kinds of issues are not difficult to navigate as long as everyone uses a little common sense.

Executives and managers need to remember that not everyone shares their religious or spiritual views and should treat employees accordingly. It’s the law, after all.

Everyone also needs to remember that the law has historically been weighted to protect religious rights. Accepting people’s differences goes a long way toward productive workplace relationships.•

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