Some amount of workplace joking makes for a fun and cordial environment, but when the jokes seem mean-spirited or offensive, it can make you dread coming to the office.
Psychologist Art Markman helps a reader figure out how to deal with a boss who is making jokes that cross the line.
I work for a large hotel chain, and my direct supervisor has been making me uncomfortable. He says things about my religion (Islam), especially when I am fasting during the month of Ramadan.
He does things like trying to tempt me by offering me food and asking how much money it would take for me to eat and not fast, or telling me it’s good if I lose weight fasting so I’ll lose belly fat. He acts like he’s just joking around, but it makes me uncomfortable and it’s offensive to my religion. What can I do? What are my rights?
Let’s start with the legal issue. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), religious harassment is illegal “when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).“ The entire EEOC discussion of religious discrimination and harassment is available here.
From your description, it sounds like your supervisor has crossed the line and has created a hostile work environment.
The question is what you should do about it. Figuring that out depends on your relationship with your supervisor. You are well within your rights to go directly to the human resources department and talk to its EEOC compliance people. That is the most direct and perhaps the easiest way to address the issue.
That approach should trigger an investigation that will take time and could end with significant disciplinary action being taken against your supervisor.
If you think that your supervisor is acting primarily out of ignorance, then you might want to start with a conversation. People in the U.S. rarely talk about issues of race, ethnicity, and religion directly with people who differ from them. With the amount of anti-Islamic sentiment in the U.S. right now, it may be hard for someone from a different religion to appreciate how deeply the kinds of negative comments your supervisor has made would affect you.
That means that there is the potential for an opportunity to educate someone else. If you are comfortable, you can schedule time to talk with your supervisor and express how hurt you are by his comments. You can talk about the importance of Ramadan to you.
For many people, a conversation like this is enlightening. Seeing the world from a different perspective can often help someone realize that a comment they think is innocuous is actually hurtful, and to understand at a gut level how these comments damage the work environment.
If you do choose to have a conversation with your supervisor, document that you are having the meeting. If the situation does not change immediately, then you should follow up with your HR office.
It is important to be clear, though, that you are under no obligation to discuss this with your supervisor. The laws on discrimination and harassment in the workplace allow you to go straight to HR to discuss the issue. And, if you feel uncomfortable discussing the issue with your supervisor, then you should talk with HR instead.
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