Saturday, September 12, 2015

Real Life in the Workplace

In my younger years I worked in a lot of restaurants.  Never fast food, always sit-down style. In the mid-nineties it was Steak & Ale, a fancy steak restaurant in Little Rock, Arkansas. Always a top choice for romantic dinners and special occasions. The lighting was low and the chairs had high backs, reminiscent of royalty chairs meant to remind us of the Renaissance Era and make us all feel like kings. I worked there for several years as a hostess and office assistant. Our uniforms were khaki knee length skirts, white button-up shirts, a navy blazer, and a red bow-tie.

Another girl worked there as a bar tender.  She had been there for many years, long before I started. She was probably in her late twenties or mid-thirties. About a year after I started, this girl got caught up in a drug bust. She was not involved in drugs herself but her boyfriend, who she did not live with, was evidently a drug dealer.  Unbeknownst to them, he was also well known to the DEA who was watching him closely.  One day the DEA decided to bust him. Unfortunately for her, they decided to do it while she was visiting him between shifts. She got arrested too.  Even though the DEA testified she was not involved, she was sentenced to a few years in Federal Prison (minimum sentencing requirements...whole other story).

When she was released on parole, she returned to Steak & Ale to ask for a job. She had a great work history with the company and was well remembered among the staff, so the company decided to hire her back. Unfortunately, conviction of a federal crime, any federal crime, comes with some parole restrictions. One of them is that a parolee cannot serve alcohol. Her job as a bar tender was definitely out, but the company decided to hire her as a server and let other servers deliver her alcoholic drink orders.  Most employees were fine with it, but a few did complain that they did not get a cut of her tips for doing part of her service to guests.  

This is an example of a company choosing to make an accommodation. It is also an example how other employees may react. I thought at the time, and still believe, it was very commendable that the company made the accommodation. Many companies do make accommodations requested by employees, for various reasons. Obviously this was not a religious accommodation.  Accommodations do not have to be due to religious beliefs or practices. And other than a few exceptions, no law requires companies to make them. But we are a diverse society and some companies value the diversity of their employees.

Which brings us to the hot topics: Kim Davis and Charee Stanley. Kim Davis probably needs no introduction. She is the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue licenses to ANY couples (bet you thought it was only same-sex couples…). Charee Stanley is the Muslim flight attendant with ExpressJet, terminated because she refused to deliver alcohol to passengers.  

There is a distinct difference.  Well, two actually.  First, Davis used her government position as a form of protest, based on her religious beliefs, by refusing to issue legal licenses to all couples legally entitled to receive those state licenses. Stanley, on the other hand, did not refuse anyone a legal entitlement (no, alcohol is actually not a legal entitlement) nor did she refuse to take the order and provide passengers with alcohol, just that she would not personally deliver the alcohol.  Passengers probably did not even know the issue existed.

Regardless, while Davis refused to follow the law, Stanley had received an accommodation from ExpressJet, much like the girl at Steak & Ale, that other employees would do the actual delivering. Also, like Steak & Ale, an employee complained that Stanley did not have to perform one of the "duties" of the job.

Did ExpressJet break the law? I do not know. The law of discrimination, as for many areas of law, is complicated, dependent upon the evaluation of each individual fact of a case, and can turn on just one tiny significant fact. 

In general, serving alcohol is part of the job of a flight attendant and not part of any statute or case that I am aware of regarding accommodation or discrimination. ExpressJet made an accommodation and that is commendable.  They then had a knee-jerk reaction once a fellow employee complained (her actual complaint is a whole other can of worms and not really the point here) because they did not really think about potential reactions and consequences of their decision to accommodate. Never a good idea.

Should Stanley have quit her job once she became aware that serving alcohol is forbidden in Islam?  Initially I will say "no" simply because, when she advised ExpressJet of her dilemma, the company agreed to the accommodation. ExpressJet's decision to terminate Stanley after the complaint really negates the orignal question.

Shocker Alert! Some Muslims don't just deliver alcohol, such as a server, but actually work in, or own, liquor stores.  Other Muslims won't even eat dinner in the home of a Muslim who receives money in any way connected to the production or sale of alcohol. Muslims are all over the map, just like every other group of faithful followers of an organized religion.  

We each, as individuals, decide what beliefs we follow "religiously" and what parts we compromise on - and not all the compromises are unconscious. These are decisions. Our decisions. Decisions that impact our every day lives the moment we decide to follow a faith or some code of conduct.

Decisions can also affect the people around us. And that's okay to a certain extent. People and companies can choose to "work around" our choices and they can choose to reject them. As long as it is a choice by both parties, not breaking the law, and not physically hurting anyone, I say go forth and prosper. Because we all make decisions of how to conduct ourselves and our lives. Decisions are a good thing as long as we voluntarily make them and are willing to live with the consequences.

Our strength lies in our willingness to consciously make decisions rather than get blown around by life and feel victimized.

Do you have any strongly-held beliefs you would lose your job over?

Have you ever experienced an accommodation in the work-place? Did others complain? How did your employer handle it?