Ask Richard: Surrounded by Evangelists at Work November 13, 2009

Ask Richard: Surrounded by Evangelists at Work

Note: To add another layer of anonymity for the letter writer, I have changed his name, as I do for all the writers who sign their letters with their name. I have also altered a few incidental details of his story to make him less identifiable.

I’m interested in your opinion on this matter.

I consider myself a radical Atheist, as Douglas Adams was known to say, he preferred to put the term “radical” there because it conveys the fact that he really meant it. Unfortunately I am also pretty much in the closet with regards to my lack of belief at work.

My problem is at work. My coworker in the next cube over is always ranting and raving about god and country. He’s a stereotypical Glenn Beck viewer, I could very easily envision him disrupting a Town Hall meeting if you get my drift. He thinks President Obama is an evil socialist Muslim from another country who wants to abort all the babies and kill all the grannies. Of course, he thinks atheists are the root of all evil and the problems of our country are caused by our abandoning god. I think he suspects I am an Atheist, perhaps because of the FSM logo on the back of my car. He recently put up a sign on his cabinet that reads “God Bless America” with a flag background. I suspect he is trying to provoke me into a discussion when I have zero interest in having one with him.

It makes for an uncomfortable workplace. I work on computer software so I can do my job with headphones on and I find myself turning the music up lately to drown my coworker out.

My question is, should I say something to him? I’d like to simply ask him to stop. I feel like he is trying to lure me into a discussion of religion just so he can try to evangelize and push his agenda. He has already made it known he has had a run in with HR when he was going around with a sign up sheet to raise money for his anti-abortion group. I personally feel such talk at the office is inappropriate. I think he wants to be a martyr with his loud offensive bullying talk. I suspect he wants me to say something and of course would claim I am somehow oppressing him.

Another wrench in the works is my manager, who can’t go two sentences without dropping a comment affirming his own religiousness. My manager even has a cup in his office from an evangelist college. It’s the kind of place that I would be amazed if they were accredited in any way. I suspect he may be a graduate from there. He also has a bible on his desk. So my manager is a devout Christian and so is his manager. My manager is also known as a cost cutter who has laid people off to save money. I wouldn’t want him to have any reason to fire me because I think he would do so in a heartbeat. If my manager were to find out I was an atheist he would probably take an interest in converting me and it would probably change his opinion of me for the worse.

We work at a pretty large company with an HR department, do you think I should go to HR over my coworker? Am I wrong for wanting him to keep his ill-informed opinions to himself? Should I just suck it up? I have a wife, kids and a mortgage to worry about.


Dear Brett,

To sum up the strategic situation, your coworker is a childish, boorish, paranoid, evangelizing activist who is annoying you with his loud and distracting blather, your manager is a devout evangelical Christian who uses an axe to protect the company profit margin, and his manager is also a devout Christian. You have a mortgage and a family to support.

I don’t think sucking it up or turning the music in the headphones up even louder will be a lasting solution. It’s just going to wear you down. You need and deserve a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere to do the work you do.

As irksome as you may find the content of Mr. Religious Right Reactionary’s opinions, that is not the issue. He certainly has the right to express his views, but he does not have the right to disturb his neighbors at work. It would be completely legitimate for you to try to quiet the irritating chatter from the next cubicle, but exactly how you do that is very important. Revealing that you are an atheist would not be a good idea at this time and place. I’ll speak to that issue later on.

The big mouth bugs you for two reasons: his political-religious views are noxious, and his constant tirades disrupt your ability to work. Although the first reason is probably the foremost in your mind, the second reason is the one that you should focus on.

I suggest that you begin to make polite requests to your coworker to quiet down always for work-related reasons. Say with a calm, flat tone, “Excuse me, I need to concentrate on my work.” or “Sorry, I gotta get back to work.” or “Can you please keep it down? I’m trying to work.” This will probably have to be repeated many times. Be patient and think of it as a game.

The volume and tone of your voice must remain low and calm, unchanging every time, so practice before you speak to him. It’s important to keep any hint of irritation out of it, because that will only provoke him. He’s looking for a challenge or even a fight, and you don’t want to feed him that.

Don’t touch the subject of his rants with a ten-foot pole. If he or your boss asks you if the specifics of your coworker’s opinions are what you object to, don’t answer that directly, just stick to you how you need to have a peaceful, quiet work environment. You just want him to stop his distracting prattling, period. Always attaching the need to do your work to your requests for him to be quiet makes your requests unassailable in that office. You’re there to work, not to discuss politics, religion, baseball or somebody’s gall bladder surgery. Even your two Bible-brandishing bosses couldn’t argue with that.

Going to HR should be the last resort, but prepare for it from the beginning. Keep a written record of the dates and times that he was disturbing your work, and the exact wording of the work-related polite requests for quiet that you made each time. This will simply help you to see if you’ve given it a fair enough time to have an effect, and if as a last remedy you decide to go to HR, you’ll have documentation that you have tried your best in a reasonable manner to get him to stop. Whether to him or to HR, always emphasize the disruption of your work, NOT the content of his tiresome twaddle.

If it finally has to go to HR, even though you will have taken all the reasonable steps and followed the proper channels, be ready for the poop to hit the propeller. If he wants to play the oppressed martyr, he will. His remarks may become more passive-aggressive, with sneaky barbs and sideways insults in your direction, or he may actually defiantly escalate his political-religious rants, daring you and HR to stop him.

Don’t get suckered into reacting to that. He wants that. Calmly and meticulously stick to your original tactic of polite requests for him to not disturb your work. Keep documenting dates, times and your polite requests, and when it seems like the right time, take it back to HR.

Now to the issue of your atheism and the tension you feel from having to keep your own views carefully concealed. I think that people with jobs should be constantly doing two things: doing their very best at their job, and looking for a better job. Even if the guy shuts up, you’re not working in a comfortable place. Casually socializing with your fellow workers is a healthy part of work, but being driven into a cubicle-within-a-cubicle, such as with your headphones on and the music up loud, or having to be extremely secretive about your own views is not a healthy way to live.

Quietly, daily, start looking around for a better place for you to work and be more free to be yourself. It may take a long time, but just the act of taking assertive steps for benefiting yourself rather than only defending yourself will help you to feel more empowered and in control of your life.


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  • Shawn

    Good advice. Might I also add: be sure to keep an open mind about your co-worker’s intentions. I know I’ve been in situations where someone has annoyed me, I’d fantasize about a response I’d like to give, then they’d annoy me again. To my mind, they had ignored my response, which made the second round of annoyance seem like an escalation. In fact it had remained constant, with the annoyer still oblivious to my discomfort.

    The writer’s other statements about the boss not being able to string two sentences together without reaffirming his faith and “My manager even has a cup in his office from an evangelist college”, also seem like things that might be unconscious exaggerations or nitpicking. It’s not a big deal if the manager went to a religious college or has its logo on his coffee cup. And a bible featured prominently isn’t an especially big deal. It would make me somewhat uncomfortable, but I’d try to think of what I’d do if it was a Grisham novel or something… Unprofessional, yes.

    Of course, I’ve been lucky enough to have mostly avoided the overly religious in my work and home life. So maybe I’m projecting my faults onto someone who really is in the situation he describes. But I still think step one is to try to separate the facts from the conclusions, then re-evaluate the facts fairly to make sure he’s not made a mountain out of a molehill.

    Good luck, letter writer!

  • Tim Carroll

    I think Shawn offers some good advice.

    You are a much better judge of your own situation, so feel free to disregard the following, if you do not feel safe at work.

    Not knowing precisely the results such an action would bring, I would let it be known that I was an atheist, and not interested in debating religious, political, or theological views at the work place.

    Do explain that such chatter is a distraction, and non-productive, and DO document any attempts the co-worker and manager might try to make to engage you in non-work related blather. Do not engage in any discussions that would otherwise compromise your position, and document every attempt to avoid expressing these non-work related issues.

  • Jim H

    Excellent advice as usual. I have been a manager (previous job) and can attest that a log of incidents can be the best friend you have in an HR meeting.

    I noticed a funny coincidence: Brett mentioned Douglas Adams’ “radical” atheism. Jesse’s prior post used the phrase “mostly harmless.”

    This, like Adams’ “babel fish,” is another proof of the non-existence of god.

    Maybe Brett could counter the manager’s bible with a copy of HHGG on his desk. 🙂

  • What kind of work do you do? We can start looking for a new job for you… 🙂 Seriously, my employer is still hiring.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I have changed his name, as I do for all the writers who sign their letters with their name.

    You need to come up with more creative pseudonyms, like Dear Abby does. “Surrounded in Seattle,” that sort of thing.

  • So, I guess you won’t be wanting to take my advice of sticking sardines under his desk?
    Yeah,,I guess Richard’s advice is better long-term.
    I just feel bad for your constant frustration…..Have you ever heard of poopsenders?
    Just a thought.
    Good luck – I hope it all gets resolved quickly for you.

  • Richard Wade

    Reginald Selkirk,
    I use the Dear Abby-style pseudonyms when the letter writers create them, but I hesitate to create my own for them because I don’t want to take the risk that my characterization of them would seem like a kind of mockery. Nicknaming people, even when the intention is respectful, can sometimes hurt their feelings. So I just randomly pick a common name.

  • Stephen P

    One issue that doesn’t seem to have been mentioned is: what do your other co-workers think? Do they, or some of them, find this fellow just as irritating? It would certainly be worth having a quiet word with any who seem at all likely to be sympathetic. Even if they are inclined to support his religious and political opinions, they may not want to hear them all day every day.

    And while I certainly agree with Richard that you should attempt to talk your co-worker, more than once, before going to HR, I don’t necessarily agree that HR is a last resort – that depends on how competent the HR staff are. Some HR managers (admittedly probably a minority) are quite capable of dealing with disruptive staff. But you will have to judge that.

    If you do have to go to HR, then if you can find a co-worker who shares your opinion of this person and will go with you, that will help considerably.

    In general however, if you have any sort of conflict with someone, you should almost always start by trying to talk to that person. Suffering in silence is virtually never advisable.

  • Ron in Houston

    I don’t think sucking it up or turning the music in the headphones up even louder will be a lasting solution. It’s just going to wear you down. You need and deserve a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere to do the work you do.

    BS. The problem is not the co-worker it is the letter writer’s insistence on irritating him/herself.

    He already described him/herself as a “radical atheist” which means that this person is way, way too attached to their atheist belief system.

    It has nothing to do with the co-worker. It’s all in the perceptions of the “radical atheist” who persists in disturbing him/herself.

  • funkshun

    Move desks?

  • Richard Wade

    Ron in Houston,
    I see your point that Brett could make some adjustment within himself to not be so irritated by the guy, but there are limits to that. Yes, we are the stewards of our own emotional reactions, but we also cannot simply adjust and adjust indefinitely to irritating outside stimuli.

    Would your solution of “not irritating yourself” work for you if your coworker at the next desk played loud music that you dislike all day long?

  • Ron in Houston,

    You should remember that Brett has decided not to confront his coworker. The coworker confronts Brett every day. Don’t you agree this is not appropriate behavior for the workplace? Although I think it is wrong to try and reason with people who are just trying to provoke.

  • He should check if his company has any written policy on this kind of thing. The place I work states, in writing, in the employee handbook, that any talk about religion, politics, or other potentially contentious issues is forbidden. And people have to be reminded of it every now and then.

    If his company has a written policy then he has a much better leg to stand on to talk to the boss, HR, or a lawyer should it go that far.

  • The Other Tom

    Brett and Richard: Putting on my manager hat for a moment, I have to disagree somewhat with Richard’s advice here, although it is thoughtful as always.

    I think the recommendation to keep a log of incidents is good and important. However, I would at no time speak to the coworker about his behavior (even just in terms of asking for a quiet work environment), and after getting what I felt was an adequate history logged, I would go to HR. I feel that any direct confrontation risks the person complaining that you’re attempting to discriminate against him because of his religion, so it’s best to let the HR professionals deal with him instead of you. I would prepare an email to them detailing my concerns, speak to them in person, and then send the email as a followup, stating at the top of the email that it is to follow up on our personal meeting in which I discussed these items. I would then print this email, and take the print home with me for safe keeping, along with a print of any reply I might receive.

    Also, there’s the matter of the boss, which isn’t directly addressed. I had a boss who made no bones about being a southern baptist minister, but he also made absolutely no issue of it at work, and successfully managed people of all religions without giving offense. I think your boss’s coffee cup must be excused; I really doubt he’s trying to use it to send a message. The bible is another question. If it’s just there once in a while, and not placed prominently for display, I think you need to try to politely view it as “he just happened to have his bible with him when he arrived for work and it’ll go home with him in the evening.” If it’s a fixture of his office and he makes a point to place it where everybody can see it, I’d be more concerned that he’s trying to make a statement that is inappropriate in the office.

    If we pretend for a moment that the boss’s bible does indeed seem to be placed to endorse religion on the company’s part (or at least the boss’s part), and that the problem coworker is in your department, it begins to create a rather different picture, which I would call a “hostile work environment”, and I would be complaining about THAT to HR rather than about just the coworker – they need to hear that you’re complaining to them and not your boss because the boss’s actions seem to endorse religion and thus contribute to the problem. I would tell HR directly that I’m afraid to speak to my boss about it because he seems to be trying to endorse his christian religion on the company’s behalf. I would make a point to use the word “afraid” several times. I would ask for anonymity.

    This leads me to the other reason I would communicate with HR about this: Brett, you seem to be saying that you’re concerned that your boss will want to fire you. Complaining to HR in advance is a way of covering your behind. If you are fired within, say, a year of complaining to HR about bias in the workplace, you have a great case for a lawsuit, or action by the state on your behalf. (Some states may have specific durations during which it would be legally assumed that you were fired due to unlawful bias, if this becomes an issue you should consult an employment attorney.) If you work for a big company the HR people should know this, so they may prevent the boss from acting against you, or if he does, you may be able to save your job by pointing out to them that they appear to be firing you unlawfully due to the bias that you previously reported, or in (potentially) unlawful retaliation for your complaint. On the other hand if you don’t report it to HR and the boss decides to get rid of you, it’s too late to try to claim to them that you’re being fired due to bias, and you’re left with substantially less evidence for a lawsuit (you can’t produce the email to prove that you already complained about bias, because you didn’t).

    Larry D: Need any web programmers in Boston?

  • The Other Tom –

    That is very thoughtful. Regardless of how calm and flat the tone of voice is, if Brett were to ask his coworker to please not be so disrupting it could always still escalate. The provoker is looking for a fight.

  • Start looking for another job. As I see it the wage is not worth the hassle but you have commitments so you can’t just quit. The logical approach is to look for work elsewhere. I know times are hard but that just makes the task more difficult, not impossible.

    A well run company will have HR give you an exit interview where you can provide your reasons for looking for another job. Leave the company with the problem of how to deal with evangelical workers. That isn’t your job.

    That said I would notify HR now but make it clear that you don’t want any action taken for fear of losing your job. If you are fired later for simply being an atheist then you have ammunition for a law suit.

  • jdhuey

    I agree with the strategy you outline; however, I would recommend the tactic of using the word ‘need’ when framing the request: I need to get back to work, I need you to quiet down, I need to get this work done, etc. By putting the request for quiet in terms of a need, rather than a want or a desire, it elevates its importance and it makes the request less personal – more work related.

  • BruceH

    It could be worthwhile to investigate whether it is legal in his state to surreptitiously record the unwanted interruptions. In some states, it’s perfectly legal and would provide unassailable proof of the situation. The manager’s possible response of “he’s lying” would look pretty silly.

  • The object is to win the war, not the battles. Remember the Jews and the Spanish Inquisition. They learned how to survive in a hostile environment. What makes you think that things are really that different in US America? Whether we like it or not, we live in a Judeo-Christian part of the world and we are certainly not a recognizable cohesive group. So, until we are, our strength is gained by learning to suck it up and learn to live with it. Get a new job when as soon as you can. Consider your job as a training you for bigger and better things to come. In the meantime, quit your whimpering and get on with life!

  • BlueRidgeLady

    I think in a way that quitting the job is letting this guy win. You have just as much of a right to keep your job as it is and provide for your family in a non-hostile work environment that anyone else does. The record-keeping is an excellent idea.

    Do consider that a lot of people who are in love with their religion really do not think outside of themselves. It is a small but viable possibility that this person has no idea he is offending anyone.
    For this reason I would certainly *not* go to HR without at least once or twice politely asking him to let you get to your work. How would you feel if someone went over your head w/o allowing you to fix the situation first?

  • BlueRidgeLady

    I think in a way that quitting the job is letting this guy win.

    Who wins? He loses a target for his evangelism. The company loses a trained member of staff and all the experience and skill that goes with that. “Brett” gains another opportunity in a company and learns from the experience but has to go through the hassle of changing jobs. Sorry but I’m not seeing any winners.

  • BlueRidgeLady


    I don’t know how bad it is and I am not criticizing the person if he does leave. However, it can send the message that being inappropriate to people you don’t understand or don’t “approve of” makes them leave. All you have to do is be an a-hole! Job searching is hell! Why should the letter-writer have to go through it. It’s that other guy who should stop his work-hindering actions or get the boot.

  • BlueRidgeLady I do agree with you and in an ideal world “Brett” would tell the other guy where to stick his mumbo jumbo (in more polite terms) and any continuation of the harassment would be dealt with by management. From the information given I can’t see that happening. In fact I can see it getting worse. If the problem cannot be removed then he should remove himself from the problem.

    Still, I can’t see a winner in this.

  • Curtis

    Trying Richard’s advice make sense. However, in the long run Brett’s only realistic alternative will probably be to look for a new job. Bret needs to be able to fit in with the culture of the company even if the culture is inappropriate. If the culture is Christian, then he needs a thick skin.

    If Brett goes to HR, he will be perceived as a complainer and will have problems at the company. It does not matter who is at fault, the person who complains is at best tarred with the same brush. More likely, he will be considered a whiner.

    I am not defending the culture of the company but trying to be realistic. Yes, this is basically giving up but unless Brett can afford to be fired, he needs to be realistic.

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