Send your workplace conundrums to email@example.com, including your name and contact information (even if you want it withheld). The Workologist is a guy with well-intentioned opinions, not a professional career adviser. Letters may be edited.
I recently had a manager ask me if I have “prayed about” a particular situation at the office. Frankly, he has been the worst manager I have ever had to work for in my 20-plus-year career. But setting that aside, this statement crossed a personal line with me. I am very private about my religious life. Do you have any recommendations on how I could handle this?
PAM, MADISON, WIS.
Discrimination against workers on the basis of religion is prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But whether that’s truly relevant here probably depends on how this incident played out.
I don’t know how you answered your manager’s question, or what your beliefs may or may not be. But let’s say your manager had ordered you to pray about some office matter, under threat of punishment if you declined. Or that your response cited your faith or lack of one, and you suffered some adverse consequence as a result. You’d be in a position to file a workplace discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Short of something that blatant, however, the situation is ambiguous. Basically, your manager can’t discriminate against you on the basis of religion, but your company can’t discriminate against him, either — by, say, forbidding him to ever mention prayer. In general, companies are supposed to make an effort to accommodate the religious practices of employees, although this can be weighed against the potential burden on the employer.
The specific details are important but often complicated. Faith-related workplace conflicts and litigation have become more common in recent years. So it might be better to think about this incident in the broader context of personal expression and identity.
Nancy Rothbard, a management professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has researched the way people “handle boundaries between their work and their personal life,” as she puts it. She suggests that this incident may boil down to “a clash of mental models.” You prefer a clear line between this aspect of your personal life and your work life; your manager, rather than setting out to pressure you, may simply believe a blurrier line is good.
Perhaps motivated by what Ms. Rothbard calls an “integrator vibe,” he might have hoped there was a chance here to connect. “People tend to project their own beliefs onto other people,” she adds.
I suspect your manager would be better off recognizing the potential pitfalls and avoiding this kind of question altogether. But either way, your best move is to make your own boundaries clear — yet also try to avoid an outright conflict. The fact that you already consider him your “worst manager” might make that difficult. But simply declaring his question inappropriate or offensive won’t help.
Instead, try something like “Well, I’ve thought about it,” and either leave it there or, if that doesn’t seem to connect, add something like “But I’m not comfortable talking about what I do or don’t pray about.” This should be delivered in a friendly-to-neutral tone. You’re not making any judgments — and neither should he.
I’m surprised that you think it is the distracted person’s problem when colleagues do annoying or inappropriate things at work. Regarding the bothersome pistachio sheller described in your most recent column: I would buy him a bag of shelled pistachios and ask him to please consider using those. They are more sanitary and less noisy.
And as for the colleagues who clip their nails at work, mentioned in the same column: That is just ridiculous, and should not force the “distracted person” to go on a coffee break. I would speak with the clippers’ supervisor about it.
Quite a few readers zeroed in on the Workologist’s glaring ignorance of the pistachio options that our modern marketplace provides. Duly educated, I hereby belatedly endorse offering shelled pistachios as a delicious example of the kind of compromise I suggested.
But on the broader theme of coping with the irritating behaviors of co-workers, I do not mean to suggest that distracted employees should simply put up with anything. Several other readers, for example, described to me a condition called misophonia, in which quotidian sounds from munching to sniffling cause extreme anxiety or other reactions in some people. That could be a reasonable and convincing detail to bring to the attention of anybody you’re asking to change a personal habit.
Nevertheless, to restate my earlier position in a different way: If you try to redesign a workplace around the complete elimination of all employees’ specific irritations with one another, you will find at the end of the process that there is no more workplace. So pick your battles. If the big issue over which no compromise can be found and which must therefore be escalated to upper management is nail clipping, then sure: Escalate. But also, count yourself lucky, because I suspect that in most workplaces, there are more important things to worry about.