Can the boss play favorites based on religion?

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Question:

I work in a city with a large "megachurch," that attracts followers from miles around. I'm not religious, but a number of my coworkers attend the church. It holds a lot of classes, social events, and so on, so the employees who are church members spend a lot of time together outside of work. Recently, my department got a new manager who is also a church member. Almost immediately, he started playing favorites in assigning work and doling out training and other opportunities. It seems like employees who are church members are getting all the benefits -- and the rest of us barely exist to him. Is this legal? 

Answer:

Making job decisions based on religion is illegal discrimination, whether the decision maker intends to favor employees of a particular religion or disfavor them. When most of us think of discrimination, we think of employees getting fired, demoted, or disciplined because of their protected characteristic (in this case, religion). But discrimination can happen through favoritism, too. After all, the employees who don't get the benefits are being treated poorly because of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof); it's just that the decision maker's intent is not to harm this group of employees, but to favor a different group. 

Sometimes, a decision maker holds prejudiced views against the disfavored group. Often, however, the decision maker doesn't intend to treat anyone badly, but discriminates inadvertently by favoring employees with whom he has something in common, be it national origin, age, or religious beliefs. Although this situation must be very frustrating, there's a chance that your new manager doesn't realize he's playing favorites. If this is the case, a simple conversation may be all that's necessary to turn things around. 

Before you have that conversation, take a hard look at what's really going on. What assignments, benefits, or opportunities are in question? Have they all gone to other church members? If not, what else is causing you to feel disfavored? It isn't illegal (although it may be poor management practice) for a supervisor to spend time outside of work with certain employees and not others, or to be friendly with only some employees. This alone isn't actionable, unless it leaks into decisions about work. For example, if you are rarely invited to after-work happy hour, where work is discussed and important networking with clients takes place, that is a very legitimate gripe. On the other hand, if the after-work happy hour involves nothing more than drinks and social discussion, it's a different story. 

Once you've settled on the issues you want to raise, schedule a meeting with your manager. Explain that it looks to you like particular benefits are going only to members of the church, and that this seems unfair. If you feel like you should have received a particular benefit, explain why. Then listen to the manager's response. The pattern you've noticed may be a coincidence, or there may be facts you don't know about that explain the apparent skew. On the other hand, the manager may be unable to come up with a reason for the pattern, other than favoritism. The manager might even admit that he is making decisions based on church membership. Either way, this conversation should give you the information you need to decide what to do next. 

If the manager's explanation is plausible, and you are satisfied that you will receive fair consideration for benefits in the future, you might want to leave things there. If you aren't satisfied or convinced, make a complaint to your company's HR department or personnel office. 

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