Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Accommodating employees should be a common sense issue

I spent a high-school summer working on a warehouse loading dock. One of my co-workers was named 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.)

Four days in to my summer job, a co-worker pulled me aside and ask, “Did Harland get a hold of you yet?”

“Uh, no. Why?”

“Just wait.”

Sure enough, that afternoon, Harland filled me in on his interesting worldview. For example, he believed—

  • the Freemasons ran the world from a secret office on the 36th floor of Rockefeller Center;
  • aliens had colonized Israel and would soon cause the apocalypse; and 
  • 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 Lee exclaiming, “Harland, we’re watching you!” 

Harland did not find the joke nearly as funny as the rest of us, and quickly complained to management. For its part, the company took the path of least resistance, replacing the desk with a spare and requiring everyone to attend sensitivity training.

Most often, the path of least resistance makes sense for your employees.

Compare Harland’s example with the employer that terminated an employee for refusing to wear a safety sticker with the number “666”, or the employer that similarly terminated an employee who refused to use a satanic biometric hand scanner.

Is it silly for an employee to refuse to wear “666” on a sticker, or to refuse to use a hand-scanner to punch in and out? Yup. Or at least I, and most of you, think so.

Were those employers within their rights to fire those religious employees, no matter how out-there their views may appear? Likely not. 

Regardless of the law, could those employers have employed a little common sense and dignity to avoid the high cost of litigation (in legal fees, bad publicity, and a likely settlement or judgment) simply by exempting the employees from the sticker or hand-scanner requirements? Absolutely. 

Even if those employers lawfully fired the employees — and Title VII’s reasonable accommodation standard for a sincerely held religious belief likely suggests otherwise — sometimes it’s just not worth the cost to be right.