Dealing With Hostility From Christian Co-Workers

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An atheist recently asked for advice on Twitter about a difficult situation she encountered at work. She indicated that a Christian co-worker had found out that she was an atheist and had started spreading vicious rumors about her. She wanted to know what she could do in this situation. I'll admit that the first thing that went through my head was, "We'll let you know as soon as we figure out what to do about PZ Myers." I'm kidding! That wouldn't have been particularly helpful.

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 one can provide evidence of a pattern of behavior interfering with their ability to do one's 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?