HR Must Handle Alleged Exorcisms

Extraordinary workplace incidents should be treated ordinarily—document what happened

By Allen Smith, J.D. Sep 25, 2017
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​Just when you think you've heard it all, along comes a complaint from an employee who alleged that a supervisor instructed her to participate in a pagan ritual involving burning sage to exorcise demons from the workplace.

HR can define what is permitted when employees want to practice their religious beliefs—in this case Wiccan beliefs—at work, and it can also piece together what really happened when bizarre incidents occur.

'We Are Doing This!'

Patricia Lindsey, a service delivery manager for Ricoh USA Inc., which provides printing solutions, alleged that her immediate supervisor's manager sexually harassed her and retaliated against her for reporting the harassment to HR. She informed HR about the harassment more than 10 times, but there was no corrective action, Lindsey maintained in her complaint, filed Aug. 29 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Her immediate supervisor also made fun of Lindsey's American Indian heritage and allegedly told Lindsey she should participate in a pagan ritual.

At a morning production meeting, the supervisor allegedly entered with a rolled-up bundle of sage wrapped in twine and purportedly said, "I will be performing a ritual today. I am exorcising demons out of this place. … Patty and I are exorcising demons."

Lindsey protested, but the supervisor approached Lindsey and pointed the bundle of sage in her face and repeated, "I am exorcising demons," according to the complaint.

The supervisor left, then returned and said Lindsey should assist since she was American Indian and accustomed to performing rituals, the complaint further alleges. Lindsey refused, but the supervisor allegedly grabbed Lindsey's arm and yelled, "No! We are doing this!" Lindsey again refused.

That afternoon at a weekly managers' meeting, the supervisor said she (the supervisor) had burned sage outside the building and traced every door frame with the burning sage. The next day, Lindsey reported this incident as race-based harassment to the supervisor's manager. The manager said the supervisor was probably kidding. When Lindsey said she would report the incident to HR, the manager allegedly told her not to or she would be sorry.

Lindsey's supervisor allegedly submitted a report to HR regarding Lindsey, saying that Lindsey was spreading rumors about the supervisor and her manager having an affair, which Lindsey denied. The supervisor also maintained that Lindsey cursed when managing employees and barred black employees from working overtime, both of which Lindsey refuted.

When HR investigated the supervisor's allegations against Lindsey, Lindsey refused to participate out of fear of retaliation. On Nov. 1, 2016, Lindsey was fired, and she alleged in her complaint that it was in retaliation for her refusal to consent to sexual advances and for making numerous reports to HR regarding the hostile workplace.

Ricoh said that Lindsey was terminated for not reporting an incident involving an employee who purportedly made a threat on Oct. 4, 2016—an incident Lindsey called "entirely pretextual."

"We strongly deny Ms. Lindsey's allegations and will vigorously defend these claims," said John Greco, public relations specialist with Ricoh USA. "Ricoh has very strong anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies and offers employees multiple ways to report any inappropriate behavior. The company does not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind."

What Happened?

There are always two sides to a story, noted Joyce Chastain, SHRM-SCP, a regulatory compliance consultant with The Krizner Group in Tallahassee, Fla. But "even if the supervisor was kidding, it's not funny. How many times have I been involved in an investigation and the alleged wrongdoer said, 'I was just joking. Can't they take a joke?' "

The complaint's statements in this case are "so bizarre they're hard to believe," she said.

The ritual was purportedly held during a staff meeting, so many people who were in the room could confirm that the events occurred, Chastain noted.

"I'd be securing their comments and recollections right away," she said. "Depositions could be 12 to 18 months from now, at which point, those present might not work for Ricoh anymore."

Mark Kluger, an attorney with Kluger Healey in Florham Park, N.J., agreed, saying, "It is up to HR to get to the truth through those witnesses in an effort to assess the credibility of the employee's complaint well before the situation ends up in court."

Faith in the Workplace

As for the pagan ritual, "If the supervisor was of a religion that believed strongly in possession and deliverance, you don't get to bring that into the workplace," Chastain said.

Chastain recalled one case in which an employer said employees could decorate their cubicles as long as the decorations were inoffensive. One employee was Wiccan and decorated her cube with symbols of her beliefs. Another employee who had to walk past this cube to get to her own was a fundamentalist Christian whose faith prohibited her from being close to such symbols. The Wiccan's decorations were "over the top," Chastain said. HR met with the employee and she took down the larger symbols, resolving the complaint without going to court.

Patti Perez, vice president of workplace strategy firm Emtrain in San Francisco, said, "The general rule is that there is nothing wrong with talking about your religion when you're doing so as informational. The problem comes when an employee, or worse, a manager, tries to proselytize, persuade or demean."

She once resolved a complaint involving a Jehovah's Witness employee who did not celebrate birthdays because of her religion but who felt pressured to participate in birthday celebrations with her department. Engaging in the activities, the employee argued, interfered with her religious beliefs.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Accommodating Religion, Belief and Spirituality in the Workplace]

HR is in the best position to ensure that all workers are treating one another respectfully, Perez noted. "Failure to follow that expectation should be looked into and fixed."

 

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