The Case of the Anti-Abortion Button

A Roman Catholic employee at a telecommunications company took a religious vow to wear an anti-abortion button at all times. The button showed a graphic full-color photo of a fetus.

Coworkers responded emotionally to the button and gathered together to discuss their concerns with their manager and others. Some threatened to walk out. The company determined that productivity decreased 40% during the period the button was publicly worn in the workplace.

In trying to balance everyone’s interests, the company offered the button-wearer three options: she could wear the button and cover it at work; she could wear it uncovered but only in the privacy of her own cubicle; or she could wear the button uncovered, so long as it bore no photograph.

The employee was adamant that this was the button she had vowed to wear and that she could not remove or cover it. She continued to wear the button and, as a result, was fired.

Key Issue: An employee’s practices negatively affecting the productivity of coworkers.

Ruling: The loss of productivity was deemed an undue hardship under Title VII, so the court found for the employer.

Implications: This employer handled the situation well by working to respond immediately, and showing respect to the employee by offering three different options for accommodating her need. Firing the employee when she wouldn’t accept any of them showed the company’s determination to also recognize and respect the other employees’ beliefs, while gathering data about productivity was a wise move and strengthened the company’s case.

What should a manager do?

The manager must recognize that something has to be done quickly to resolve the situation. With organizational support, the manager needs to first make an attempt to create a solution that works for that specific employee as well all her coworkers. The manager can first meet with the employee privately and acknowledge the employee’s commitment to the issue and her religious vow. However, the manager must clearly explain the negative impact that wearing the button is having on her colleagues and the company.

It is also important for the manager to identify options to accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs without interfering with the workplace. When the employee accepted none of the options and continued to wear the button, the manager did the right thing in firing her. In such a case, the manager must document the situation thoroughly and document the negative impact on the company as well as the efforts to accommodate.