Firms face difficult questions

For instance, what should they do if an employee thinks he is the Messiah?

Contra Costa Times/January 21, 1999
By Jessica Guynn

Technological Armageddon triggered by the millennium computer bug would be ominous enough for business. But what if one of your employees or co-workers becomes convinced he's the Messiah?

Not only could it happen, it already has.

"Millennium fever" has gripped some workers, raising eyebrows and concern in the workplace.

California is home to practitioners of every mainstream and alternative religion as well as to people who place their faith in hundreds of cults, covens and clubs. Quite a few believe in the Christian millennium prophecy. Some end-timers are fervent in their apocalyptic beliefs.

Though it's unlikely to become a widespread phenomenon, some employment lawyers warn that outbreaks of "millennium fever" may become more frequent as the end of the century draws near.

Those outbreaks are sure to raise thorny legal issues. In just the past few weeks, Jeff Tanenbaum, a San Francisco lawyer, has received several inquiries from Bay Area companies. In all, Tanenbaum says he has fielded nearly a dozen calls from human resources professionals and corporate managers grappling with the religious beliefs and practices of millenarians in the workplace. Y2K scenarios

In one instance, a worker who thought he was the Messiah would lie on the floor and pretend he was nailed to the cross, frightening co-workers and customers.

At two other companies, employees talked about the coming apocalypse in the workplace, the exhortations alarming their co-workers.

Some of the other Y2K scenarios Tanenbaum says employers should be prepared for: A group of employees request time off to attend a millennium festival; A worker's manner of dress or appearance changes dramatically for the millennium; An employee requests a leave of absence to travel to the Middle East for the millennium; A supervisor, a practicing millenarian, is accused of conducting employee reviews which include biblical prophecy; An employee belongs to a millennium group that calls for violence.

Are these workers and their beliefs and practices protected by state and federal laws prohibiting religious discrimination in the workplace?

In most cases, the answer is yes, Tanenbaum says.

The federal Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission defines religious practices to include "moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views."

Those beliefs do not have to be espoused by a religious group or be widely held by others to be protected, Tanenbaum said. 'Accommodations'

Under federal and state law, employers must make reasonable accommodation for religious practices. Protected practices include observance of a religious holiday, prayer breaks during work hours, dietary restrictions and unusual dress or other personal grooming habits.

"Employers do need to make reasonable accommodations on a case-by-case basis," agreed Tom Makris, a San Francisco employment lawyer.

But if an employee wants to take time off to attend a millennium festival or party for personal, not religious reasons, the employer has no such obligation, Tanenbaum said.

The trick is to determine that the belief is genuinely religious in nature, said San Francisco employment lawyer Rebecca Eisen. "If the employee believes in the millennium as the second coming and holds that belief the way someone else may believe that Jesus is the son of God and in the second coming of Christ, then it's a religious belief under the law," Eisen said. "The safest thing for an employer to do is to provide accommodation without creating a 'me-too' syndrome in the office."

If an employer investigates a worker's religious beliefs, Tanenbaum advises caution.

"Employers must tread carefully in making the determination" of whether an employee is requesting time off for religious reasons or not, Tanenbaum said. "Close scrutiny of the employee's request may itself be viewed as discriminatory or harassing conduct and may also be an invasion of privacy."

And that leaves employers very little wiggle room, Tanenbaum said.

"If an employee requests a leave of absence to attend 'the mother of all millennium parties,' a prudent employer will want to know whether the employee means 'Mother' with a capital 'M,'" Tanenbaum said. "If so, (the employer should find out) whether the employee has a religious belief in the 'the Mother' as in earth or otherwise, and whether the employee feels compelled by this belief to attend or simply wishes to do so out of personal preference." Other pitfalls

Tanenbaum said company managers can refuse a worker's request for time off from work if it results in "undue hardship" such as violating a collective bargaining agreement, forcing other employees to work undesirable shifts or coming at a substantial cost to the employer.

In other cases, employers can refuse as a matter of company policy. One worker complained of religious discrimination when he couldn't access information about the millennium on the Internet from his work station, but Tanenbaum advised his client that it had a right to use blocking software to ward off potentially offensive material.

Still, other pitfalls lurk. Employers need to be careful that millenarians don't harass other workers by proselytizing about their religious beliefs in the workplace. Such talk also may foreshadow violence, something employers must closely monitor.

And if your employee thinks he's the Second Coming of Jesus Christ?

That's a tough call, Tanenbaum says.

The worker may well be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act for being emotionally or mentally unbalanced, Tanenbaum said. "But if you treat him under ADA, he could say he is being discriminated against because of his religious beliefs," Tanenbaum said. "It's basically damned if you do and damned if you don't."

Of course, the employee who claims to be the Messiah may actually be the Messiah, Tanenbaum said with a straight face. "In that case you don't want to be wrong or you may well really be damned."

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