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When Work and Religion Collide

By Liz Ryan For the past two weeks, my mailbox has been full of messages on the topic of religious accommodation at work. People are curious about the workplace ramifications of the refusal by pharmacists in several states to fill prescriptions for birth-control pills, because of their religious convictions.

The broader issue is whether employees should be required to do tasks that violate their conscience. And that question, as it applies to pharmacists, is suddenly becoming a political hot potato, with state legislatures and state pharmacy boards wading into the fray, and someone, somewhere, no doubt hoping to bring the debate to Congress. Here's my take:

As a veteran human-resources person, I've always believed in a reasonable degree of religious accommodation for employees. Two decades ago, the issue centered on time off -- making sure that if Christmas was a holiday for some employees, Rosh Hashanah would be for others. Today, most employers understand that it's both good business and the right thing to do to let employees fulfill their religious obligations, whether those involve praying to Mecca during the day, or having certain foods available (and not others).

FINDING COMPROMISE. The issue with pharmacists is trickier, involving, as it does, the uncomfortable implication that the religious beliefs of one group should somehow trump the legal rights of another -- or even subject customers to unsolicited, over-the-counter lectures on moral matters.

Generally, I don't think employees in any business should be forced to do something that violates their moral or religious beliefs, whether it's dispensing contraceptives, laying off hundreds of employees, or pushing a product to customers even though it's being discontinued. There -- that's the easy part.

The hard part is figuring out the employer's obligation. In Illinois, the Governor has issued an emergency rule that requires pharmacies to ensure prompt, hassle-free service even if individual pharmacists refuse to dispense a medication. That's a sensible compromise: Pharmacists can follow their beliefs, but patients won't be inconvenienced or harmed. Let me be the first to offer a hearty "well done" to employers who'll be this flexible.

DRAWING THE LINE. The next question, though, is: Should a company be compelled to continue to employ a pharmacist whose religious objections cost the employer extra dollars (to pay for extra staffing) and scheduling headaches?

I'd say no. If you take a job, you agree to do the job -- not to do it only on your terms.

So the salesperson who feels uncomfortable flogging a discontinued product can go work somewhere else. Ditto for the business manager who can't stomach laying off people -- and for thousands of employees whose personal beliefs are impinged upon at work every day. If a workplace assignment isn't illegal, an employee should have to do it. The remedy for anyone who objects is well established: quit.

NOW HIRING. How many of us have always felt 100% comfortable with the tasks we've been asked to perform at work? That's the thing about a job: You get paid to execute someone else's agenda. If you want to follow your own plan, go start a company.

It's a system that has worked pretty well ever since the Pilgrims showed up. And there's no reason now to start forcing companies to pay employees who won't do their jobs. These workers will simply have to find positions that take them out of the line of fire -- or an employer that reserves a few slots for conscientious objectors.

So, my advice for pharmacists who decide that they can no longer balance their religion with the requirements of work is this: take heart: There's a big wide world of alternate professions and employers -- some of which are waiting just for you. Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT

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