Dilemma Of The Month: How To Handle An Activist Employee

Back Q&A Dec 6, 2018 By Suzanne Lucas
One of our employees is a vegan activist, and has started posting material on the “evils of eating meat” outside his cubicle or leaving them strewn around shared spaces (in the kitchen, near the copier, etc.). Is there anything I can do about this behavior? He also gets offended if anyone fails to provide a vegan option when treats are brought in, whether by a colleague or for a company-sponsored event. Is this a protected behavior/belief system?

Let’s take this situation and flip it. You know that religion is a protected class and you can’t discriminate on the basis of religion. But you’d never allow an employee to tell others they were going to burn in hell, leave religious literature all over the office or pitch a fit when someone brings in food that doesn’t meet their strict religious code.

You’d rightly say, “You are welcome to pray over your food, wear whatever religious clothing or jewelry you want and to post a picture of the deity of your choice in your cube. But this is a business, and there will be no proselytizing or condemning of others.”

While courts have held that veganism can be considered a religion under Title VII (which deals with all protected classes), you don’t have to turn your business into a church of veganism. The law specifically states: “The law protects not only people who belong to traditional, organized religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, but also others who have sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs.” So, here’s what you need to do:

Have a formal sit-down discussion, with a witness

When you’re dealing with someone who is likely to be upset or potentially feel their rights being violated, you don’t want to have this discussion casually. You should have either an HR manager or your manager present for a discussion. This discussion should be documented, as well.

Make the following things clear

  • Leaving articles, pamphlets or other material around the office is not allowed.
  • Criticizing people for their food choices is prohibited. This is bullying and not tolerated.
  • The company will make an effort to accommodate his dietary choices, just as you do for everyone else with dietary restrictions, but that doesn’t mean every food item purchased by the company will be vegan. Remember, he’s not the only person with dietary restrictions. Someone else may be on a diet that requires high protein and consists mostly of meat.
  • You will not restrict or monitor food offerings by other employees. If someone brings in donuts, that’s merely nice.

The employee is welcome to bring in vegan food to share, but under the same conditions as other shared food. If your general rule is donuts are dropped off in the breakroom, then he can drop off his vegan donuts in the breakroom. He can’t go around delivering them individually to extol their virtues.

Related: Dilemma of the Month: Asking About Health

If he complains that you’re violating the law by not respecting his religious or ethical beliefs, point out that you are in no way suggesting he eat meat-lovers pizza with extra cheese. He is welcome to the same protections every other religious group has. But he cannot be rude to other employees because they have different beliefs.

Ask for his suggestions

While you basically want him to keep quiet about his personal beliefs and focus on doing his job, you do need to make reasonable accommodations, so go ahead and ask him what he needs. If you have a weekly lunch, it’s entirely reasonable to provide him with a vegan meal. If he asks for that, I’d make it happen.

If he asks for the right to hold a weekly lunch and teach his colleagues about veganism, I’d say no, but with one caution: Because you should consider veganism as a religion, if you allow Bible study groups or something similar, you have to grant him the same. But participation is strictly voluntary. Don’t let his obnoxiousness blind you to the accommodations you’ve given others.

Be prepared if he doesn’t change

If you’ve talked with your employee and made the rules clear and he continues to harass people, it’s time to fire him. His behavior is bullying, and there is no place for that in the workplace. Period. You’ll lose other employees because of his bad behavior, and you’ll ruin morale. You can’t allow him to continue, so this is a situation where you show him the door. Of course, you should consult with your employment attorney to make sure the termination is solid and fair, but he either changes or goes.

Obnoxious people get away with being obnoxious because it’s so painful for ordinary people to confront them. They know this. He’s gotten away with this behavior for a long time, and it will be difficult to get him to change, but change he must. Just resist the urge to talk with him while eating a double bacon cheeseburger. 

Have a burning  HR question? Email it to: evilhrlady@comstocksmag.com.

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