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Instead, I suggested that she start documenting what the co-worker was saying and doing in case she needed to support a formal complaint through human resources at some point. These complaints often end up being more successful when the complainant can provide evidence of a pattern of behavior interfering with their ability to do their job, creating a hostile workplace, and the like. Even though documenting incidents is a pain in the ass, I have found that it is far better to have the documentation and not need it than to need it and not have it.
Finding oneself in a situation like this (i.e., a Christian co-worker decides that one's atheism warrants mistreatment) is not a pleasant experience. I suspect it is not an altogether uncommon experience either. With that in mind, I thought I'd use this post to share some thoughts about what I might do in such a situation and invite readers to chime in with their thoughts.
The first thing I'd probably do in such a situation is assess the nature of my workplace. I'd start by asking myself whether there are likely to be supportive others in my workplace. Do I have co-workers who know I am an atheist and are okay with it, or is one Christian co-worker likely to be able to poison many others against me? I'd also consider my boss. Is this someone I can go to about this issue, or would that be ill advised?. I'd also make sure I knew how to access the human resources department or the person tasked with this responsibility. This sort of assessment would not necessarily determine how I would proceed, but it would likely influence it.
With those initial bases covered, I would - as I suggested above - be sure to document every incident involving the Christian co-worker. I'd do this in a brief diary sort of format in which I recorded the date, time, who was present, and what was said or what happened. I'd keep my notes descriptive and refrain from interpretations. That is, I'd record only what I heard or saw and make no attempt to infer intent, motive, and the like.
With my recording system in place, I'd ask myself whether it made sense to have a conversation with the Christian co-worker in which I calmly explained how I was being affected by his or her behavior and requesting that he or she stop spreading rumors or doing whatever else he or she was doing. I'd only have such a conversation if I was sure I could get through it calmly and without saying anything I might later regret. If I were to choose to have such a conversation, I might mention that I was considering taking the issue to our boss, human resources, etc. But since conversations like this have a real potential to do more harm than good, I'd be sure to think through it carefully before deciding to have one. And if I did initiate such a conversation, I'd be sure to document it.
If I had a conversation with the co-worker and the behavior continued or if I decided that it was unwise to have a conversation with the co-worker at this point, I'd next be in a position to consider bringing the matter to my boss and/or human resources department. Were this to happen to me in my current job, I'd go directly to human resources because I have ample experience suggesting that my boss would side with the Christian co-worker. This would be the point where I would explain what was happening, how it was impacting my ability to do my job, and be prepared to provide specific detailed examples from my documentation. I would expect that human resources would take some time to investigate the matter, and I'd do my best to steer clear of the Christian co-worker while they did so.
While all of this was going on, there would be a number of things I would try hard to avoid doing. I would not do or say anything that could be reasonably perceived as provoking the Christian co-worker or as indicating mutual animosity. I would be very careful about complaining to other co-workers about this co-worker. I would expect that my boss and/or someone from human resources might talk to my co-workers as part of their fact-finding process, and I'd want to be careful about what I had said to them.
And finally, I might consider consulting an attorney. I would be more likely to do this if it looked like my employer was unwilling to resolve the situation, the situation became worse, or if I started to worry that my job was in jeopardy. Sadly, I suspect that some employers would love to brand the atheist as making trouble. This would be the sort of scenario where I'd want to make sure I had legal advice.
What additional thoughts do you have on how to handle situations like this? Have you been in a situation like this? If so, what was helpful and what would you suggest others avoid?