Harassment and Bullying: Two Wrongs that Do Not Make a Right: A Case Study with a Brief Analysis
This is a two-part case study that describes a situation in a New York City public high school, where a devout Christian male physical education gymnastics teacher was quite outspoken and proselytizing about his faith to both his students and fellow instructors. After an incident occurred in the teacher’s lounge around continued use of religious expressions, the instructor was warned by his supervisor to tone down his Christian rhetoric. The following day this instructor found every item on his desk to be perfectly turned/shifted 180 degrees. -He was quite unnerved by this action and reported it to his supervisor who then issued a warning to the department. The incident was repeated the following day, which resulted in a written warning to each member of the department — all of whom strongly stated their innocence. No additional incidents occurred, and the Christian instructor reduced his use of Christian expressions. The case is then briefly analyzed by examining the human resources issues of religion in the workplace as well as harassment and bullying. Please note that this is a disguised case — the high school in question and the affiliated employees’ names have been changed to protect their anonymity.
Religion in the workplace has become a contentious subject during the past few years, ever since employers have had the challenge of balancing the right to practice religion with the right to privacy — the bottom line being creating a productive workplace where everyone’s viewpoints are respected and appreciated. The U.S. Department of Labor has provided guidelines to help employers walk this contentious tightrope.
Employees are permitted to engage in private religious expression in personal work areas that are not regularly open to the public to the same extent that they may engage in non-religious private expression. Generally, such religious expression must be permitted so long as it does not interfere with the agency’s ability to carry out its official responsibilities. If such interference does occur, supervisors may limit such religious expression, so long as it is restricted without regard to its content or the viewpoints it may convey. … when such expression is directed towards other employees, such as views regarding religious practice expressed in a conversation, an employee must refrain from such expression when a fellow employee asks that it stop or otherwise demonstrates that it is unwelcome. Continuing that conduct in such circumstances could manifest into unlawful religious harassment. (https://www.dol.gov/agencies/oasam/centers-offices/civil-rights-center/internal/policies/religious-expression)
What happens, however, to employees who continue to express their religious views (or who display religious posters and use religious terminology) and are asked to cease and desist by their co-workers, yet they persist in expressing those views? One reaction may be religious discrimination.
There are typically three main forms of religious discrimination in the workplace: (1) employment decisions based on religious preference (2) harassment based on religious preferences and; (3) failing to reasonably accommodate religious practices. … Harassing individuals due to their religion can include making fun of employees or telling them they are violating the company’s dress code because they wear religious clothing such as yarmulkes, turbans, or hijabs (head scarves); repeatedly mocking a person because of his or her strong, Christian beliefs; ridiculing a Muslim employee for refusing pork at a company picnic; making efforts repeatedly to “save the soul” of a fellow employee who is an atheist.” (https://www.workplacefairness.org/religious-discrimination)
The following case describes a real situation that occurred within a New York City high school. Please note that this is a disguised case — the high school in question and the affiliated employees’ names have been changed to protect their anonymity.
Harassment and Bullying: Two Wrongs That Do Not Make a Right
“Have a blessed day” Washington said to his fellow gymnasium coach as he left the men’s physical education office to teach softball during physical education class on a beautiful spring day. His colleague was anything but amused. He had asked Washington to stop pushing his religion (or any religion for that matter) on him. He was an “ardent atheist” and felt that one’s religious beliefs should be kept to oneself. He certainly did not go around preaching atheism and jokingly “thanked G-d he was an atheist.” This was the final straw of Washington’s continual barrage of preaching and proselytization. “I will take matters into my own hands,” he thought to himself.
City High School (CHS) was a public high school and part of the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) in one of the outer, more suburban boroughs. Grades 9–12 are taught at CHS with a student population of more than two thousand. The demographics of the students were a melting pot: 30% Hispanic, 20% Black, 20% South Asian, 10% East Asian, 10% Middle Eastern, and 10% white. At the time of this story, the NYCDOE teacher demographics were very different from the student population: approximately 60% white, 21% Black, 14% Hispanic, and 4% Asian (New York City Independent Budget Office). The principal of the CHS was a young, 40-year-old Jewish white male.
CHS had a strong physical education program for both male and female students and employed numerous well-trained faculty. The male physical education teachers shared an open office where they were each assigned their own personal desk. The teachers used the office to prep their classes and to eat lunch. The department had been very stable and had worked together for a long time. (See Exhibit A for the list of teachers and their demographic backgrounds.)
|Exhibit A: Physical Education Male Teachers at CHS|
|David||White||Jewish||55 years||30 years||Union Chapter Leader (10 years)|
|Michael||White||Jewish||50 years||25 years|
|Patrick||White||Christian||42 years||15 years|
|Fred||White||Jewish||35 years||12 years|
|Washington||Black||Christian||30 years||9 years|
|Ben||White||Jewish||29 years||7 years|
Although the newest member of the faculty, Ben had already been at CHS for seven years. The biggest change had been when George (32 years old, white, Christian, 7 years), who started at the same time as Ben, was promoted two years ago to athletic Director. George’s teacher position was not filled due to budget cuts so he assisted in class instruction. Each teacher was responsible for teaching five classes with 50 students in each class. David, another gymnasium teacher, was elected by the school’s faculty to be the union chapter leader. This was a very influential position, as the union chapter leader served as the link between the faculty, school administration, union officers, borough representative, and district representative.
Stable but Not Harmonious
Washington was very passionate and outspoken about his Christian faith. His desk was meticulously arranged and organized and contained a lot of Christian articles on it. He hung inspirational posters above it as well. (See Exhibit B.)
Washington felt he had a spiritual duty to teach others about his faith with the hope to convert them to his way of thinking. His relentlessness at times caused tempers to flare since several of his colleagues were of different faiths. It bothered Patrick a lot that his fellow Christians did not have the necessary zeal to also talk about the “good book” nor the need to challenge others’ morality because of their differing beliefs. The office atmosphere was less than collegial in the office when Washington was present. Washington had a habit of confronting both his Christian and Jewish colleagues as to their religious fervor. One confrontation was so bad that George heard the commotion in his office between Washington, Patrick, Ben, and Fred. George invited Washington to his office and explained that he needed to tone down his evangelism in the teacher’s office as it was not the proper place for it. The others in the department tried their best to distance themselves from Washington so as not to engage in his religious rhetoric. After the incident, Washington was trying to be more contained, but the awkwardness of the situation made him nervous. He wanted to be liked by his co-workers and feel accepted, but the silence was deafening. As Washington left the office to go to class, he uttered the most positive thing he could think of — “Have a blessed day” — to his colleague, not even realizing its religious content nor the possible associated unintended consequences of making such a statement.
The Next Day
When Washington arrived at the office the next morning, nobody else was in the office. He found every item on his desk to be perfectly turned 180 degrees. Washington found the action to be unnerving, humiliating, and a personal affront. He ran into George’s office, upset and confused — Why did this occur, and who could have done such an unchristian thing?
Questions to Think About for Part A
- What law or laws could be applied to the confrontation in the teacher’s lounge about Washington’s proselytizing?
- Do you agree with the actions that George took after the commotion in the teacher’s lounge? If not, what actions would you have taken, given your answer to question 1?
- How might David, the union leader, have handled Washington’s original proselytizing?
- If you were George, how would you now handle Washington’s complaint regarding his desk items being turned around? What laws could be applied in this situation?
Harassment and Bullying: Two Wrongs That Do Not Make a Right
George interviewed each of the male physical education teachers to find out what happened. Nobody admitted to doing it nor seemed to know what happened. George also had a private meeting with Washington to see if he had had any clashes with anyone in the department after the last blowout. Other than being awkward, he had not had any conflicts. George raised the issue to the rincipal, who guided him to pull the department together and issue a verbal warning that this sort of behavior would not be tolerated. George did as he was told and instructed the team about the importance of creating a respectful environment where everyone felt comfortable: This type of harassing behavior would not be tolerated.
The following Monday, when Washington arrived, he found his desk to be rearranged again in the exact same manner. Washington did not even sit down; instead, he went straight to George. George was flabbergasted. He could not believe someone would do it again. George spoke to everyone on the team again, and nobody knew what had happened or even acknowledged that the situation had become “awkward” in terms of Washington’s prior religious expressions. They all “seemed” shocked that it had happened again. George and the principal were convinced that at least one of the male physical education teachers had taken the action, and, worse, that the rest knew what happened and who did it. The principal advised that a written warning should be delivered to each of the male physical education teachers other than Washington.
George delivered the written warning to each teacher, which resulted in furious rebuttals. “I am innocent …, Why are you looking at me …, I did not do anything …, How dare you accuse me when you have no proof?” The other gym teachers were angered by George’s formal actions and near simultaneously yelled, “Why are you siding with Washington, He could have done this himself in retribution for being called into your office. Doesn’t the Bible say, ’Vengeance is Mine; I will repay says the Lord’? (Romans 12:19). The loudest complaint came from David who said, “How dare you accuse me of this wrongdoing. I am the union chapter leader!”
George never found out who the culprit was who rearranged his desk, but there were no future incidents. Washington also realized that he needed to tone down his religious passion in the workplace and removed some of the Christian elements on his desk and took down the poster. The office conditions became more tolerable for all, although never truly collegial.
Questions to Think About for Part B
- Do you agree with how George handled the first incident of desk rearrangement? If not, what would you have done differently and why?
- Do you agree with how George handled the second incident of desk rearrangement? If not, what would you have done differently and why?
- How should David have handled the desk rearrangement incidents and George’s accusations against the male physical education teachers?
- What would you have done if you were in George’s and David’s place? Why?
A Brief Case Analysis
The above story touches upon three human resources topics: religion, harassment, and bullying. Each will be discussed in short below.
Lussier & Hendon (2019) noted that religious discrimination is a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and identified religion as a protected class. Employers are required to provide a “reasonable accommodation” for requests that are based on religious beliefs (Lussier & Hendon, 2019). Washington’s religious articles, posters, and discussions with fellow adults were all protected by this right. However, the moment he was asked by his co-workers to desist from conversations about his religious beliefs, he was required to respect their request, which is their right under the same law.
Religion in public schools is a hot topic and creates a lot of debate. Did Washington’s rights change because his employer was a public high school? The answer is “no.” Freedom of religion is guaranteed under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which has two parts: 1) Government (state and local government, including public schools) may not either promote religion (the “establishment clause”) or 2) prevent people from practicing their religion (the “free-exercise clause”) (Gjelten, n.d.).
However, in 1971, the Supreme Court established the Lemon Test from the case of Lemon vs. Kurzman. Schools must not 1) prohibit or promote a particular religion, 2) be motivated by a secular purpose, and 3) avoid excessive entanglement between church and state (Heinrich, 2019). Washington was protected as long as he was not engaging students in prayer, preaching during class, or behaving in a way that was deemed unwarranted or harassing. However, the moment he was asked to tone down his religious rhetoric by his colleagues and his supervisor, he was required to (DOL, n.d.).
Washington’s preaching could have been construed as harassment to his fellow teachers. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines harassment as unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, and so on, which results in a work environment that is intimidating, hostile, or abusive (EEOC, n.d.). According to the Society for Human Resource Management (n.d.), proselytizing in the workplace could affect an employee’s right to work in an environment free from religious harassment. His behavior clearly bothered his co-workers and was unwelcome. Washington did not correct his behavior after George spoke to him following the confrontation.
Firms have tightened the ability of employees to proselytize with strict solicitation rules in their Codes of Conduct (HR, n.d.), and, therefore, the teachers should have raised their concerns to their supervisor George that Washington’s behavior had not changed. David, the union leader, also could have stepped in and tried to diffuse the situation and raise his concerns to the supervisor, George (United Federation of Teachers, n.d.). Regardless, rearranging Washington’s desk constituted harassment, implying that employees were unilaterally going to take matters into their own hands.
“Bullying can best be understood as a pattern of aggressive, contemptuous and abusive behavior toward another party” (Petersen, 2018). The actions taken against Washington constituted bullying behavior, as it was meant to make him feel upset and uncomfortable. Worse than the bully, nobody stood up to defend Washington or to say what they saw. The behaviors of the bully and the bystanders cannot be condoned or allowed to occur (Emamzadeh, 2018). The swift action taken by the administration in both occurrences with varying degrees of punishment was also necessary. It is also recommended that the department to have had professional development on the importance of a respectful environment and the importance of bystander intervention.
In the United States, there are three taboo topics to bring up in a polite discussion: religion, politics, and money (May, 2017). An individual’s personal beliefs in religion and values are core to their essence, and for many it is very private. Although Washington’s intention to enlighten his fellow teachers might have been noble, the way he went about this illumination became controversial, harassing, and annoying. Washington did not respect his co-workers when he took the topic too far; nor did he listen to his supervisor. More should have been done to modify Washington’s behavior because the silence and the actions done to his desk were an “underground” reaction to Washington’s persistent behavior. That being said, the desk rearrangement (not once but twice) clearly was also a form of harassment. This case is a true example of “two wrongs do not make a right.”
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Department of Labor (n.d.). Religious Expression in the DOL Workplace. Retrieved from https://www.dol.gov/agencies/oasam/centers-offices/civil-rights-center/internal/policies/religious-expression
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Romans 12:19 (n.d.). Vengeance is mine. Retrieved from https://biblehub.com/romans/12-19.htm
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United Federation of Teachers (n.d.). Responsibilities of the chapter leader. Retrieved from https://www.uft.org/your-union/about-uft/chapter-elections/responsibilities-chapter-leader