Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sympathy for the Devil (as religious discrimination)

I haven’t always been a lawyer. During a previous life (high school and college), I spent weekends and summers as a bar mitzvah DJ, a nursing home busboy, and a warehouse loading dock guy. At one of those warehouses, I worked with a man by name of Harland Jester. (I provide his name because he named his son “Court,” and this context provides the necessary color for the rest of the story.) Harland was an interesting cat. He believed, for example, that the Freemasons ran the world from a secret office on the 36th floor of Rockefeller Center, and the Lee Iacocca saved Chrysler by making a pact with the devil. This warehouse was full of colorful characters in addition to Harland, many of whom enjoyed a good practical joke. One such joke, played at Harland’s expense, involved a sketch on Harland’s work desk of Mr. Iacocca shaking hands with Satan, with both saying, “Harland, we’re watching you!” Harland did not find the joke nearly as funny as the rest of us, and complained to management. For its part, the company took the path of least resistance, repainting his desk and requiring everyone at attend sensitivity training.

Suzanne Lucas, the Evil HR Lady, shared a story this morning about another employer which could have taken a lesson from my summer job. Billy Hyatt sued Pliant Corp. after it fired him for refusing to wear a sticker with the number 666 (representing the number of consecutive accident-free days) on it. According to the Workplace Prof Blog, Mr. Hyatt’s complaint alleges that he “asked a manager for a religious accommodation on day 666,” and was fired after he refused to work on that day at all.

Sometimes, the path of least resistance makes sense. Is it silly for an employee to refuse to wear “666” on a sticker? Yup. Was the employer within its rights to fire that employee? Maybe. Could the employer have avoided the cost (in legal fees, bad publicity, and a potential settlement or judgment) by simply exempting this employee from the sticker requirement for that one day? Absolutely. Even if this employer was legally in the right in firing this employee—and think about the reasonable accommodation requirements for an employee’s religious beliefs—sometimes it’s just not worth the cost to be right.