onion-1328465Here’s a seasonally appropriate horror story for employers.

As employers know (I hope), Title VII prohibits discrimination against employees on the basis of religion. That means that employees cannot be subjected to adverse employment actions based on their own religious beliefs, but also because they refuse to submit to an employer’s religious beliefs. But what is “religion” within the meaning of Title VII? The answer to that is incredibly confusing and very broad – encompassing all sorts of non-traditional belief and morality systems. The Supreme Court has said that determining what is a religious belief “is more often than not a difficult and delicate task.” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in its regulations, has provided an expansive definition of religion that includes:

moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views. . . . The fact that no religious group espouses such beliefs or the fact that the religious group to which the individual professes to belong may not accept such belief will not determine whether the belief is a religious belief of the employee or prospective employee.

The effect of this incredibly vague and broad definition means that employers may not always recognize when they’re dealing with a situation involving religion. A striking (perhaps even terrifying) example of this can be found in the recent federal court decision, EEOC v. United Health Programs of America, Inc.

The CEO of a small insurance company wanted to address the deteriorating corporate culture at his company. His aunt had created a program called “Onionhead,” (let’s pause to absorb that for a moment, shall we?) that she describes as a multi-purpose conflict resolution tool. Initially, the program was targeted at children (ah, now the name makes slightly more sense), but was then expanded to people of all ages, at which point the aunt reformulated “Onionhead” into part of an umbrella program called “Harnessing Happiness” (a name rather more appropriate for adults, I think we can agree). Apparently, references to “Onionhead” and “Harnessing Happiness” are made interchangeably.

Although the CEO and his aunt describe Onionhead as a conflict resolution program and deny that it was a religion, the employees (and the EEOC and now the court) disagreed. According to the employees, during Onionhead workshops, they were required to sit in a circle, holding hands, chanting and praying. They were instructed to burn candles for cleansing and thank God for their employment. Onionhead emails between management, the aunt and the employees involved discussions about God, spirituality, demons, Satan, divine destinies, the “Source,” purity, blessings, and miracles. Onionhead materials contained spiritual and religious imagery and iconography. Based on all of these things, the court concluded that Onionhead “is a religion for purposes of Title VII.”

What is so interesting (and scary!) for employers is the fact that the employer did not believe that what it was doing was religious – but it was found to be religious by the court. The lesson here is that employers must be thoughtful about introducing corporate culture or conflict resolution programs into the workplace. While these programs can be helpful, they must be carefully reviewed to ensure that they do not contain aspects that could be deemed religious by the employees (or the EEOC!).