Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues-everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
What do you think about prayers or invocations said during work events? My organization's CEO asked everyone to bow their heads while he said grace before a celebratory pre-conference dinner at a fancy restaurant they had rented out for the occasion (it was a typical Christian prayer, thanking the Lord for the food and such). The guests included prominent professionals -- some even famous in our field -- from all over the country, along with staff and board members.
The organization is health care-based and has nothing at all to do with religion.
I was a little shocked and embarrassed, and immediately wondered how many non-theists, Muslims, Hindus and Jews were among the attendees.
I'm not really asking about the legality of this, but am interested in your take on this issue and wondered if you had advice on how to approach leadership about not including this particular component of the dinner next year.
Yeah, that would make a lot of people uncomfortable, me included, and it could make your company look less than professional. (To be clear, I wouldn't be at all uncomfortable with a prayer before dinner in someone's home. But the workplace is a very different situation.)
I know you didn't ask about the legality, but I'll tell you anyway: It's legal, as long as they excuse employees who want to be excused and don't retaliate against them for it in any way. The EEOC says that employers can include prayer in business meetings (and even hold religious services) as long as participation is truly voluntary.
But legality aside, it's a bad idea. First, most employees aren't going to believe that they can truly opt out without penalty. Quite a few people are going to end up believing that their standing with their management depends on conforming, or appearing to conform, to those religious beliefs/practices. Second, even attendees who don't particularly care are likely to find it unprofessional. So for those two reasons, it's going to have an impact on morale, retention, and (if word gets out) recruitment. And third, when you're doing it at a meeting with outsiders there, they're probably going to find it uncomfortable and unprofessional too.
Now, it might be that the people running your company don't care about that -- or, more accurately, that they want to pray in the workplace more than they care about those consequences. And that's certainly their prerogative. But it's also your prerogative to speak up about it, if you want to.
Here's what I would say if I were in your shoes: "I was surprised to hear a religious prayer said at the dinner the other night. We have employees of many different religious beliefs, and none at all, and the same is probably true of our guests. Regardless of their beliefs, many people are uncomfortable with religion at workplace events. I wonder if that's been considered?"
You'll learn a lot by the response. (And be prepared for the fact that many people think that saying grace isn't especially religious, or that it's so non-denominational that it couldn't possibly make anyone uncomfortable. You may find yourself needing to explain that it is indeed exclusionary to plenty of people.)
Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to email@example.com.