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The Personal, the Political and the Professional

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The story behind this post occurred before Christmas, but is still rumbling on in various forums and on Facebook, so I thought it might be worth addressing here, as it’s something that everyone will probably have to deal with at some point in their career. Basic story: a teacher has been  suspended from her private tutoring position because she refused to stop talking about Christianity after being asked to when she was supposed to be teaching maths. The Daily Mail, in typical tabloid style, chose to run the story as a “Christians are being oppressed and political correctness has gone mad! OMG!” whine, which they do a couple of times a year.

MacGuffin at Tabloid Watch has already done a brilliant takedown of the whole affair, so there’s no need to rehash it here. What interests me are the reactions from people, especially those on the Facebook group who are screaming persecution. What cannot be denied is that the teacher in question, Olive Jones, had been asked on more than one occasion to keep religion out of her teaching; evidently she didn’t think these guidelines for her employers were important enough to take seriously. Next, the parents of the child she was supposed to be teaching didn’t ask for her to be punished; all they asked was that somebody else be sent to teach their child in her place. Also, despite all the hysteria about her “sacking,” she has merely been suspended; her employers have asked her to come in for a meeting, but she has yet to set a date.

From my point of view, it seems incredibly simple: she was employed to teach maths, and on more than one occasion with more than one client, chose instead to proselytise. By the time she was suspended she had already received at least one warning. Quite frankly, she so far has has been treated very fairly. As an agency worker here in the UK, she could have been dismissed much earlier with no comeback for her employers. But is she being persecurted or oppressed? Do an employee’s personal or political beliefs override their professional duties when they are at work? Conversely, should an employer’s beliefs be extended to their employees?

As a godless heathen, I would probably not be suited to working for an evangelical ministry. However, if I did, would I attempt to convince my co-workers of the merits of atheism? Not unless I was determined to start an argument. I have worked in offices which are majority Christian, majority Muslim, and a mix of various religions, including — memorably — a committed Satanist. Generally, as long as everyone is respectful of each other’s beliefs and doesn’t ask for special consideration to the detriment of others, things can come rub along smoothly.

This isn’t to say that there is no religion at all in offices. Some businesses allow Muslim employees to leave early on Fridays, a majority don’t operate on Sundays, and quite a few will happily give time off for festivals such as Diwali. Conflict is only likely to arise if religious practices start interfering with the operating of the business: taking a few breaks during the working day for prayer could be fine; going round to each of your co-workers desks for an attempted conversion is less likely to be so. The first doesn’t particularly affect anyone else in the office, especially if a room or area set aside for everyone’s use is made available; the second could lead to alienation and ill-will between colleagues.

So employees should respect each other’s beliefs and try to keep religious conflict to a minimum, but what about employers? In the UK, the unions are still a major force in the Labour party, and a portion of union members’ subscriptions are used to make donations to the party. There is an opt-out available for those members who don’t wish to donate to Labour, but what about employers who are supporters of a political party? In addition to making individual donations, some businesses offer offices and even staff to help with political campaigns. How much freedom do employees have to refuse to work on a political campaign if they are not supporters of a party, and would they face any sanction if they did? What about employers who encourage their staff to vote a particular way? While it may not be illegal to champion a particular candidate or party, the power differential that exists between an employer and their staff means that employees could feel under pressure to participate. Just as well that actual votes are anonymous.

Stories such as that of Olive Jones emerge with tedious regularity in the tabloid press; generally, once you get past the froth and the fury, there is usually a far more mundane story beneath the cries of persecution and oppression. In the workplace, a few well thought-out policies emphasising respect and tolerance for all should be enough to avoid the worst conflicts. However, there will always be times when beliefs, whether personal or political, will need to be taken into consideration and sometimes addressed head-on. When this happens, before taking drastic action (which happily hasn’t occurred in the Jones case) it might be a better idea to sit down and think about what is fair to all, rather than a particular individual. People are not automatons, and it can be difficult for somebody to leave their personal beliefs at the door when they come into work. Rather than expecting them to, working to minimise potential conflict before it occurs will probably be more profitable than waiting for a disgruntled employee to go running to the papers.

[Image by Svadilfari]

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