Must I allow an employee to proselytize clients?

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Question:

I'm the local manager of a discount grocery store; we are part of a large chain that operates mostly in lower-income neighborhoods. My store is in an area that has a large Afghani immigrant population, many of whom are Muslims. One of my employees, whose job is to keep shelves stocked and help customers find items, is an evangelical Christian. I've received a number of complaints from customers about his efforts to engage them in discussions of religion and convert others to his religious views. I held a disciplinary meeting with him and explained that he must stop this behavior. He told me that his religious beliefs require him to testify about his faith to everyone that he meets, particularly those who will not be saved unless they repent and convert. He's otherwise a good employee, and I don't want to stifle his beliefs. But he's driving customers away, and we will really suffer if we get a reputation as unfriendly to certain religions. What are the legal requirements here?  

Answer:

Employees whose religious beliefs require them to proselytize pose tough issues for managers and employers. On the one hand, the law requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to allow employees to practice their religion. On the other hand, if an employee's religion requires him or her to express religious views to others, employers might be faced with customer complaints, lost business, or -- when other employees are the targets of the conversation -- harassment claims. 

The legal rule that applies here is that an employer must accommodate an employee's religious beliefs, including the need to profess his or her faith, unless doing so would create an undue hardship. What constitutes an undue hardship depends on all of the facts and circumstances. Generally speaking, however, an accommodation that imposes more than minimal costs, whether in dollars and cents or in burden to the business or other employees, will not be required. 

When it comes to proselytizing, what matters is how the other participants in the conversation feel about it and what effect it has on the business. For example, say an employee in an office environment hangs a poster saying "Jesus is Lord!" and asks everyone she met whether they were interested in learning more about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The employee leaves others alone if they say they are not interested, and has religious discussions only with those who indicate they are open to hearing more. In this situation, the employer may be required to accommodate the employee's expression of beliefs. Although some coworkers may be annoyed by the employee's efforts, this inconvenience doesn't rise to the level of workplace harassment. And, the employee doesn't serve the public, so the company needn't consider that issue. 

Your situation is very different. The employee in your case has a lot of public interaction. And, his beliefs go well beyond a religious greeting or invitation to talk: They apparently require him to persist in trying to convert others, even after they have told him they are not interested. Because your employee is one of the public faces of your business, you are entitled to consider what message he is sending. It's reasonable to assume that customers may believe he speaks for the store, and may get the mistaken impression that customers of other religions (or customers who are not religious at all) are not welcome there. In this situation, you are entitled to require the employee to lay off this type of proselytizing as a condition of continuing to work for you. Accommodating his faith is creating an undue hardship for your store. 

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