Your Boss Asks If You Have Prayed About A Work-Related Matter…What Is The Ethical Response?

This question was asked of the New York Times’ “Workologist” (It’s stuff like this that keeps me subscribed despite the paper’s disgraceful partisan bias and unocnscionable manipulation of the news):

I recently had a manager ask me if I have “prayed about” a particular situation at the office… this statement crossed a personal line with me. I am very private about my religious life. Do you have any recommendations on how I could handle this?

The question immediately reminded me of “Breach,” the film about the capture of spy Robert Hannsen (Chris Cooper), who was always urging his clerk (actually the undercover FBO agent recruited to unmask him) to pray. The “Workologist” (Rob Walker) begins by pointing out the obvious: a boss can’t demand that you pray, or fire you for refusing to. Then he adds,

Your manager can’t discriminate against you on the basis of religion, but your company can’t discriminate against him, either — by, say, forbidding him to ever mention prayer. In general, companies are supposed to make an effort to accommodate the religious practices of employees, although this can be weighed against the potential burden on the employer…Faith-related workplace conflicts and litigation have become more common in recent years. So it might be better to think about this incident in the broader context of personal expression and identity…

your best move is to make your own boundaries clear — yet also try to avoid an outright conflict. The fact that you already consider him your “worst manager” might make that difficult. But simply declaring his question inappropriate or offensive won’t help.

Instead, try something like “Well, I’ve thought about it,” and either leave it there or, if that doesn’t seem to connect, add something like “But I’m not comfortable talking about what I do or don’t pray about.” This should be delivered in a friendly-to-neutral tone. You’re not making any judgments — and neither should he.

I find that approach cowardly and dishonest.

If you have prayed about it, the answer is “Yes, I have prayed about it.” If you do pray about such matters but haven’t, an ethical  answer is “Good idea. It certainly can’t hurt.” If you don’t pray, however, don’t believe in prayer, or don’t believe there is anyone or thing to pray to, saying “I’m not comfortable talking about what I do or don’t pray about” is deceitful, calculated to leave the impression there is something you pray about. Even “Thanks, but I don’t pray about such things” is misleading.

If you are afraid the boss will think less of you for not signalling that you sit in his pew, get over it, or find another job ASAP.  If your boss says, “Are you rooting for Duke in the Final Four? It’s my alma mater!” and you’re afraid to say, “Nope. I’m a Louisville fan; my father went to school there,” then you have a toxic workplace,ad you are on the road to Weenieville.

Do you want to guess what I would say to a boss who suggested that I should root for the Yankees? (Because I’ve said it!)

Any boss worthy of supervising me had better be able to respect me for being candid and telling him or her the truth. I would say to my prayer-pushing boss, “Thanks, but I believe we have to solve our problems, and be fully accountable for what happens. I don’t believe in prayer, but of course I respect anyone’s right to feel differently.”

Any further pressure on the issue would warrant a warning. Being a lawyer in such scenarios is a big help, I must admit.

22 thoughts on “Your Boss Asks If You Have Prayed About A Work-Related Matter…What Is The Ethical Response?

  1. Your best line is “If you are afraid the boss will think less of you for not signalling that you sit in his pew, get over it, or find another job ASAP. ” But that’s advice far too many don’t want to hear.

  2. Jack,

    “…then you have a toxic workplace,ad you are on the road to Weenieville.” Or perhaps your living hand-to-mouth and your prospects of finding an equal-paying job in the near future are less than certain.

    What if your boss tells bad jokes and you laugh just to get him to go away? What if they have a body odor issue? What if they’re just not someone you have any interest knowing outside a professional context but they constantly inquire as to your non-work life?

    Jobs are what people do to make money, not necessarily what they do to make themselves happy. Anyone who argues the two should be synonymous has been reading too much Rand or Marx.

    • What bad joke?

      Abuse of power is enabled by allowing someone to intimidate you. You end up little more than a slave, and encourage such bosses to bully others. See: bossed dictating charity choices. Identical issue.

  3. Context matters, which include, but not limited to: tone, personal history, relationship, etc etc.

    I can read the complaint 8 different ways and each one would garner a different ethical approach.

    In the most damning of circumstances, the boss is Christian and sincere in his question, assumes the writer is devoutly Christian themselves, with the aim to ensure the writer is doing “everything possible” to get favorable business outcomes, including the enlistment of the divine.
    In this scenario (and many of the others I can imagine) the best course is to be as forthright and honest as possible.

    a) Honestly, I’m not religious at all, so I don’t pray, ever, unless I’m falling out of an airplane without a parachute.

    b) Well, I was raised Christian, but praying is not my thing.

    c) Yes, I have.

    d) Not about work things. I like to keep the two separate and not ask for personal advancement. That I like to earn on my own.

    I do wonder what a psychologist would say we could glean or learn from the responses to such a question. Knowing that such religious question would put someone in a nervous situation, their responses might be telling. Can they handle adversity? Will they be honest and forthright? Will be they be awkward? Will they lie and kiss ass? Having written all this, I’m suddenly in love with the question!

  4. Just let your yes be “yes” and your no be “no.”

    A boss asking a question like that would be irresponsible* not to have extensive prior knowledge (or extensive explicit impressions such that presumption of prior knowledge is arguably justified) about the employee’s faith and practice of that faith, before asking the question. *i.e., unethical (and a pretty damned lousy representative of his faith group)

  5. Ok Jack as you know I pray about everything, but I would pray for someone to shut me up if I crossed the line and pushed someone to something they are uncomfortable with. Religious practices are as personal as questions about personal hygiene, political beliefs, and sex practices. These questions are verboten in polite society,unless your friendship in intimate.

  6. “If you are afraid the boss will think less of you for not signalling that you sit in his pew, get over it, or find another job ASAP.”

    Spoken like a self-employed person. Sure, if that sort of thing comes up a lot, you have to do something about it. But what do you do in the meantime?

    I’d probably go with “I’m not comfortable talking about faith in the workplace,” and hold the line there.

    • I have worked and avoided the topic for years and when I became the boss I dealt with it by a policy that we can discuss anything they like and if they wish they can decline to discuss any thing. Now my staff also does not fit with those that are not tolerant. I am a gay Roman Catholic conservative in many ways. I have a bleeding heart Episcopalian Socialist as my asstaint Manager, we. Have to Wiccan one lesbian, and two baptists one gay. a Indian who is more non religious, and one more I have never discussed reliance with. We had had drag queens ,trans gender, good ole boys, NRA members I’ll work with anyone as long as they fully respect everyone else. I do not have luxury of not doing so. The running joke in the store is I will say exactly what I think, and then say “not that I have an opinion on the subject” leave them amused and you will not offend.

  7. Sharing things about my personal life in a work environment is a great big no-no for me. I haven’t had any problem throughout my life letting superiors know when they’ve crossed the line between work discussions and prying into my personal life. I don’t share personal things with others until I see fit to do so, so asking me direct personal questions related to my personal life almost always gets and answer along the lines of “that’s none of your business” (I’ve stated that very thing here a few times).

    I’ve been in work environments where I’ve heard people that can’t seem to shut up and they babble all freaking day long about their personal lives, it’s truly annoying. I honestly don’t give a damn if you took your dog to the vet to get his shots, or that you picked up a big package of ground beef at the grocery store for meatloaf this weekend, or that your corns are sore today, or your wife can’t cook for shit, or your husband is an asshole, etc, etc. People keep this kind of idle chatter and casual conversation distractions to yourself in the work environment and focus on your job, and please, please don’t ask people non-work related personal questions at work. If you choose to socialize with your work mates after work, talk about whatever the hell you like.

  8. Pray about work? When I’m off the clock, I don’t even think about work, much less discuss it with deities. My customers get the time they’re paying me for; every last minute of the rest of it is mine.

  9. Jack-

    While your suggested answer is certainly more honest, isn’t there something to be said about weighing the ethical value of honesty against the ethical value of not causing distress (in the form of embarrassment) to someone who presumably meant well?

    We don’t know the whole story here- does the manager regularly recommend divine intervention? Perhaps the manager knows/believes the employee is religious and was simply mistaken about how open he or she is about discussing it. Maybe this was the manager’s idea of bonding over mutual desire to see a problem resolved, and it didn’t occur to him that HIS casual banter is someone else’s intrusion.

    As I read the question, the manager asked “did you pray about it” on a SINGLE occasion. I find this analogous, in a way, to a single unwanted but non-egregious request for a date in the workplace- while not GOOD conduct, it fails to rise to the level of harassment without being severe or pervasive. If it was casual and happened once, what’s the benefit in making him feel bad about the request? The Golden Rule suggests that you assume he didn’t mean to be inappropriate, and give a gentle or noncommittal rebuff that allows him to take the hint. Further badgering over the question, or repeated requests, of course, merit a stronger response.

    Of course the calculus changes here if the manager pursues the topic aggressively, or even if he refuses to take the hint and keeps bringing it up casually. The writer’s reference to the manager as “the worst,” though, makes me wonder if behavior that would be forgiven in a better boss is seen as more problematic from a worse one?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.