Written in Stone: Why "Team Commandments" Are a Bad Idea

Dec. 18, 2013
Does your practice have a set of "Ten Commandments" or "Team Commandments" that lists teamwork and communication rules?

by Paul Edwards

Does your practice have a set of "Ten Commandments" or "Team Commandments" that lists teamwork and communication rules? The list could include "Help each other be right, not wrong," and "Speak positively about each other and about our organization at every opportunity." (The latter one, by the way, could be a violation of the National Labor Relations Act.)

Don't get me wrong. Defining standard behavioral rules and expectations for the team can be helpful. Since CEDR is in the business of crafting customized employee handbooks, the company has a list of teamwork rules offered to practices that do not have their own.

So, why am I talking about this issue? There is a big and important difference in the connotations of the word "rules" and the word "commandments."

You may be aware of religion's Ten Commandments. By using a clever play on words, and likely wishing to evoke the same serious tone of the original, many businesses have titled their team rules either the "Ten Commandments" or "Team Commandments."

But it's also easy to see that putting a spin on team rules by calling them "commandments" is not a great idea for a workplace. In fact, it is a bull's-eye for an employment law attorney looking for evidence of religious discrimination. For this reason, we always advise that the titles of these lists be changed to something less potentially inflammatory and more legally defensible.

After seeing this term pop up countless times doing employee handbook evaluations, I knew sooner or later someone was going to make headlines for this application of the word "commandments." And now it has happened.

CASE STUDY: AMBROSE v. GABAY ENT & ASSOCIATES

A medical receptionist in Pennsylvania was recently fired for refusing to wear a name badge that lists the office's "Ten Commandments." According to the lawsuit, Ambrose v. Gabay ENT & Assoc., P.C., et al., No. 12--5453 (E.D. PA Aug. 15, 2013), she refused to wear the "Ten Commandments" badge because she believed it was sacrilegious to use the term "Ten Commandments" to refer to anything other than what is prescribed by the tenets of her faith.

A federal court in Pennsylvania is considering whether the medical office violated the laws protecting employees from religious discrimination. In this instance, the employer tried to get the court to dismiss the case, insisting that the "Ten Commandments" was merely a title used to refer to the office's team rules and had no other intent or meaning. The court did not see the issue as that simple, and refused to dismiss the case.

The employer argued that the employee could not truly believe that the badge went against her faith, and that the employee was misconstruing what the Catholic faith says about the Ten Commandments. The court explained that, as an arm of the government, it cannot interpret scripture or make rulings on what is a true religious belief. Doing so would require the court to be an "arbiter of scriptural interpretation," which courts cannot do.

Instead, what the court can and will consider is whether the employer could have reasonably accommodated the employee's beliefs by changing the badge. We expect the court will decide that the medical office could have easily accommodated the receptionist's beliefs, and rule in favor of the employee.

At press time, the case has not concluded. But by denying the employer's attempt to dismiss the case, it's clear that the court takes this situation seriously. Regardless of the outcome, this sets a precedent: the court has to consider claims regarding "commandments" used in an employment context.

Policies, signs, and rules that have religious connotations can make employees uncomfortable when used in an office setting, and can be used as evidence if an employee should believe that he or she is being subjected to religious discrimination. (If you would like to have your office handbook evaluated for these and other risky areas, visit www.cedrsolutions.com/de.)

Remember, religion and the workplace don't mix. The employer's actual intent does not determine the outcome of a case. If you are using anything similar to this in your practice, I suggest it is time to reevaluate your phrasing.

Paul Edwards is the CEO of CEDR Solutions and author of the blog, HR Basecamp. Since 2006, CEDR has been the nation's leading provider of customized employee handbooks and HR solutions, helping dentists successfully handle employee issues and safely navigate the complex employment law landscape. Call (866) 414-6056 or send an email to [email protected].

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