Onionhead in the workplace: Crying a warning on workplace discrimination

by Michael Haberman on October 17, 2016 · 2 comments

The EEOC doesn't like religious discrimination even if it is a "fringe" religion or can be declared one.

The EEOC doesn’t like religious discrimination even if it is a “fringe” religion or can be declared one.

I was not going to write about this at first, but when you see two prestigious law firms like Seyfarth Shaw and Constangy Brooks devoting “ink” you sit up and pay attention. Now you may be wondering what the heck is Onionhead. There are two answers to that question. The first Onionhead is a 1958 movie starring Andy Griffths. The second is that Onionhead is a character that the EEOC claimed is a religious figurehead used by one company to discriminate against its employees. Yep you read that right.

How Onionhead is a religious figure

Onionhead is a character owned by the Harnessing Happiness Foundation which is a 501c3 nonprofit which is, according to their website, “dedicated to teaching problem solving skills, conflict resolution and appropriate behavior through emotional awareness and intelligence.” That sounds innocent enough, so how did the EEOC get involved? According to Seyfarth Shaw attorneys Alex Karasik and Gerald Maatman, Jr. it all began when a small company was trying to turn itself around.

CCG is small wholesale company that provides discount medical plans.  Beginning around 2007, CCG executives determined that their corporate culture was deteriorating.  To fix this issue, CCG hired its CEO’s aunt, who had developed a program called Onionhead that CCG began to utilize in its workplace.  CCG described Onionhead as a multi-purpose conflict resolution tool, while plaintiffs characterized it as a system of religious beliefs and practices. 

The trouble began when the company allegedly started disciplining or firing employees who did not buy into the practices of Onionhead, which they claimed “required to them do things like use candles instead of lights to prevent demons from entering the workplace; conduct chants and prayers in the workplace; and respond to emails relating to God, spirituality, demons, Satan, and divine destinies.”

It was this effort to foist what employees considered to be religious beliefs that got the company in trouble. As Robin Shea, of Constangy Brooks, said “…for you employers who adhere to ‘fringe’ or mainstream religious beliefs, beware of committing ‘reverse religious discrimination’ by pushing your beliefs on your employees.

Employers also have to be careful

Employers also have to be careful when it is their employees who have the fringe religious belief, or believe in an offshoot of a mainstream religion. If the employee can show that their belief is sincerely held then, as Shea tells us, “…the employer can’t discriminate based on that belief and must try to accommodate if the employee needs an accommodation.”

As this case shows employers need to be careful when it comes to things that can be perceived as religious when holding meeting or conducting training. Otherwise like CCG the company my face the ire of the EEOC and end up with lawyers and HR bloggers writing about your company. By the way the attorneys for the company didn’t think this would go anywhere. Oops.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sandy Nolen October 17, 2016 at 8:22 pm

Wow, this is pretty interesting. It is hard to believe that a company management would try to enforce its belief on others in this day and age. Discrimination comes in all forms . Our consultants at KunbaHR.com – an online HR software provider has seen this far too often. HR Managers have un-envious task of ensuring that company policies as well as employees adhere to the non discriminatory practices. As organizations become more diverse, this is easier said than done unfortunately.

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Michael Haberman October 20, 2016 at 10:42 am

Sandy, thanks for the comments. I also see this more often than I would like. In small businesses it is often a case of “if you don’t like it, leave.” I can see that point but it creates a legal problem.

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