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My large, international employer supports employees volunteering in our local communities, even allowing us to spend a certain amount of work time on such projects. My local office of about a dozen people was recently talking about doing something as a group, and somebody offered to organize a project. (That happened while I was on vacation, so I don't know the details of that conversation, but I'm on board with the general idea.) A group project, in addition to helping the local community, is an opportunity to do something valuable together as a team that isn't work. I think there's team-building benefit to that.

Here's the problem: the specific organization the person contacted is problematic for me because their work is strongly bound up in a religious mission that I cannot support. Their religious goal is front and center in all their publicity, their motto, their client interactions, etc -- bringing the light of (name) to the world, that sort of thing. I'm happy to do the type of work they suggested, and I'm always glad to hear of religious groups that act on their faith by doing things like feeding the hungry -- but I can't be part of a project that promotes their religion, which their work does pretty blatantly. Participating in that way is a violation of my religion. (Please just take me at my word on this; I'm not trying to start a religious argument.) I am certain that this possibility did not occur to any of my coworkers.

The project got far-enough along while I was away that I would feel awkward saying "er, could we do something else instead?". Because we are a small group, it will stand out if I don't participate. I'd also rather not lie about being busy; I don't like lying, and it will also probably be pretty obvious because it's a work-time project, not an evening or weekend. If I organize a different project (which I'd rather not do, but could do if necessary), I worry that it looks like I'm stomping on (or at least wasting the time of) the coworker who already made these inquiries. If I tell that coworker why I'm uncomfortable, I risk an uncomfortable conversation in the workplace. I'd also like to avoid giving the impression that I don't care about helping my local community -- I do, but not like this.

How and with whom should I bring this up? We're all peers except for one manager (who is not my manager; mine's remote). We all get along well and like each other, but we're coworkers not close friends. They are all aware of my (minority) religion at a surface level but are almost certainly unaware of the problems of involvement with this other religion. (After all, most people never have reasons to think about stuff like that.)

  • But how does the project "promote" their religion? Just because their name is tied to it, while the actual project activities are secular? Or something else? – user3169 Aug 16 '17 at 2:55
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    @user3169 signage, for starters. I don't know if they directly evangelize people over dinner, never having been, but they're clear in saying they do this as part of advancing their religious ideals, and some of their main religious ideals are counter to mine. I mean, we agree on feeding the hungry and so on, but imagine that a group you find reprehensible were running a their-group-branded program -- would you feel comfortable helping with it? It's like that, except stronger. – Monica Cellio Aug 16 '17 at 3:00
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    Understood. Its after the fact, but I think the employee group that arranged the project made a mistake in not understanding the possible conflict. So pretty much as already answered, I would politely decline participation (it is voluntary, right?). A reason shouldn't be necessary. Depends on your company, but you should let your immediate supervisor know why (just in case there is some blow-back or grumbling from someone). Others don't need to know unless you want to tell them. – user3169 Aug 16 '17 at 3:09
  • @user3169 your recommendation to mention the concerns that the company might have is a good one and not one yet covered in the answers. I had the same thought. – Catija Aug 16 '17 at 5:23
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If this is a religion-affiliated group project, then they most likely have strongly held beliefs, just as you do. I'm sure one of them is to not lie. Lies are so damaging.

My suggestion is that you just tell the truth. If they are honest about their religion, they should respect that. I would say something like,

I really enjoy working with you, and I think this project is valuable to the community. I want you to understand that, because I mean it. But one of the tenets of my faith/religion makes my participation in this project difficult, even impossible, for me. I am uncomfortable being in this situation, but I want you to know that why I won't be participating isn't personal. Thanks for understanding.

It's a difficult situation, and I admire that you have the courage of your convictions. They should too after some reflection, if their faith is genuine.

  • 14
    I combined a few of the suggestions here (which makes awarding the checkmark hard). After an email thread about scheduling soon built up steam, I decided I needed to act now. I just had a private conversation with the organizer in which I said, approximately: I'm really glad we're doing something to help the community, this type of project is great, but the front-and-center religious message of this particular org makes me very uncomfortable so I can't participate. It's not personal & I look forward to something different next time. He was very understanding, & I trust word will get around. – Monica Cellio Aug 17 '17 at 15:37
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Given that it's an issue of religious affiliation I probably wouldn't be shy about stating that plainly. It probably should have been a consideration when your co-workers were coming up with ideas to begin with, and it apparently wasn't...

I'm not saying that you should storm in and tell them off. I'm just saying that their lack of foresight is a little concerning. When planning a work related activity people really should think about such things and it's completely reasonable to tell them that you don't feel comfortable working with an organization that has a specific religious affiliation.

Consider saying something like:

I'm not opposed to the sort of project you all came up with, but the religious affiliation of the group we'd be working with is a problem for me. Can we make other plans? If it's too late to reconsider, I may have to sit this one out.

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    I'd recommend "affiliation" over "agenda". We don't know what the religious group is... "religious agenda" seems a bit too charged for this situation. It could be a group that has ties to a specific religion but doesn't necessarily overtly act in that religion's name. – Catija Aug 15 '17 at 23:29
  • @Catija fair enough... "Agenda" could carry some unnecessary overtones. – apaul Aug 15 '17 at 23:33
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    I combined a few suggestions, which makes awarding the checkmark hard. See this comment. – Monica Cellio Aug 17 '17 at 15:37
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I personally wouldn't even bring up my own religion at all. My response would be along the lines of:

I'm happy to hear that we're organizing a charity event, and I'd love to participate, but I cannot in good consciousness work for an organization that uses charity to promote a religion. Especially when we are going to be doing this charity event during work time, as a company team. Not all of us follow the same religion, and I don't want people to think (even quietly) that they have to choose between having to be associated with a religion that is not theirs or having to say no to a team event.

For what it's worth, the company I work for also supports charity (purely financially, in this case) and their charity choices are also all religious. And it bothers me. It's not something I would bring up, but it is very much one of the reasons I don't feel as connected to this company as I might have been. Your company might also have, or gain, more of this silent resentment from people by openly associating with specific religions, and I think it's valuable to warn people of that.

Which religion they want to support, or which one you support, shouldn't really factor into it. As a company, you should make everyone feel welcome, and supporting a specific religion generally isn't going to help with that. Let alone asking people to do charity work for one.

  • I combined a few suggestions, which makes awarding the checkmark hard. See this comment. – Monica Cellio Aug 17 '17 at 15:38
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My suggestion would be to go to the first meeting, do whatever's asked of you that does not directly promote their religious objective, humbly apologize if someone asks you to do just that (while offering to do something else).

Then, if you wish, just don't show up any more. Use what transpired at the first meeting as the excuse (such as giving out flyers for a free consultation).

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Because people are people, you're right that your coworkers are likely to have the reactions you've predicted in response to the various approaches you've already considered. Ultimately, it comes down to either speaking up (risking the outcomes you enumerated so well), going along with the event (sacrificing your religious values), or making up a lie to get out of going (sacrificing your moral values). Indeed, there may be no solution that will completely satisfy all of your very reasonable stipulations: not going, not offending anyone, and not sidestepping the issue by lying. When sticking to one's values, these predicaments tend to arise.

There may be an unknown solution lying with one or more of your coworkers (maybe someone objected in the meeting you missed, but was shot down or retracted), but maybe not, and if you ask around to find it, you could look sneaky and reveal your reservations anyway. Likewise, if you do let your internal moral compass take the hit (get out of it by lying), you run the risk of compounding the problem. While you may avoid any immediate conflict that might arise from addressing the matter more directly, you'll have given your coworkers no idea that there was a problem, and then, they could make the decision during the event (which you'll again not be present for) to make it their go-to community service project for the future!

In my opinion, telling them exactly how you really feel (describing your religious-based concerns, recognizing that this is no one's fault, and expressing you have no ill will toward anyone) is the best option on the table. At least then you have some options regarding how you tell them. The answer to mitigating potential alienation and tension within the office will come from getting everything out in the open and saying it to everyone at once.

This would require getting everyone together (which may be feasible in a small office) and making sort of a "confession" of what you've been struggling with lately, or it could be done by sending them all a letter (perhaps via intra-office message system?). The benefit of it going to everyone at once is that the office "cliques" won't have a chance to start building Survivor-type alliances behind your back. Alternatively, you could write the letter and then ask for the gathering where you then read it to them.

In any case, you'll be telling the truth and explaining everything, so your conscience will be clear. Hopefully, there will be someone who'll recognize that asking you to do this is disrespectful to your religion or to your right to have a (minority) religion of your choice and come to your side. Having that ally should make it difficult for anyone else to come against you, so instead, they'll be respectful too.

The main difficulty in telling them verbally (at least for me) is remembering all your points and how you'd planned to state them. Also, someone could jump in with a question and throw you off. The upside to a live presentation would be that you could convey in your voice and expressions how troubled you've been over the issue, which could bring you some much needed support.

The pros and cons of writing them a letter are pretty much the opposite of the live performance: you can take your time to really get your points together and no one can interrupt you. On the other hand, depending on your writing skills, you could also lose the human element by putting it all in writing.

I have suggested writing the letter because personally, I am a better writer than a public speaker, even among friends, but you should consider your own strengths and do whichever will work best for you.

Your question here was extremely cogent and I have no doubt you'd be able to convey your religious dilemma, and either offer a convincing argument as to why they should consider doing something different or, if you think that would upset things too much (like, maybe things are all set up by the time you send it), why you'll respectfully choose to forego THIS community service project. You might also include how it was perfectly understandable that they didn't consider the issue (given your absence and yours being a minority religion), tell them you don't want them to offer to change the venue nor feel bad about doing it without you, and other such things to help avoid bad feelings.

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    Hey, Weasel! The OP has already said that she doesn't like to lie. Making up a fake medical emergency is a lie. Is there a specific reason you are encouraging the OP to lie in this case that should override her general unwillingness? – Catija Aug 15 '17 at 23:34
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    @Catija She also said she'd like to avoid an uncomfortable conversation in the workplace. So, I began by stating it may not be possible to find a solution that meets all of her stipulations – tell the truth, face this likely risk OR consider going against her values to avoid it. I encouraged (both first and last) her telling the whole story. – WeaselADAPT Aug 15 '17 at 23:48
  • Thanks for this thoughtful response (particularly the first suggestion about the letter). The second has both the problem of lying and the problem of giving the impression that this was otherwise just fine (so let's do it again), as you note. I think your answer would be stronger without the ER part (but I upvoted for the first part anyway). – Monica Cellio Aug 16 '17 at 0:18
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    You're very welcome, @MonicaCellio. I hope it helps and I appreciate the feedback. I'm sure this place and its sometimes overzealous down-voting will refine the try-to-be-funnys out of me soon enough (or ban me). Maybe count yourself lucky you met me while I'm still me, eh? ;) – WeaselADAPT Aug 16 '17 at 0:51
  • OK, OK; you win, down-voters! I've completely revised the answer... – WeaselADAPT Aug 19 '17 at 0:06

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