Blessing in disguise

National | Christian employee's workplace greetings under scrutiny; resolution of conflict may affect others

Issue: "Forbes," Nov. 20, 1999

US Freightway is having a blessed year: Its revenue grew 52 percent over last year on its ability to manage and transport heavy loads for such industry giants as Xerox, Galoob Toys, Procter and Gamble, and many other Fortune 500 companies. But executives at USF's Indianapolis subsidiary, USF Logistics, fear their economic blessings are threatened by talk of spiritual ones. They've instructed employees not to use "religious" language like "have a blessed day" around its clients, particularly software titan Microsoft. Liz Anderson began working at USF's Becton-Dickenson warehouse in 1995 and has been promoted frequently for excellent work, culminating in 1998 when she won Office Employee of the Year. A member of Phillips CME Church in Indianapolis, Mrs. Anderson is known by her peers as an outspoken Christian and has been asked to offer prayer at company picnics, luncheons, and other company occasions. But 1999 has proven to be somewhat of a different kind of year. The quality of her work isn't the problem, but rather it's her telling people to "have a blessed day." USF Logistics officially reprimanded Mrs. Anderson in June when she (politely and respectfully, she takes pains to emphasize) refused to stop salting her farewell graces with the good-will phrase. "I don't see what's the big deal," the soft-spoken Mrs. Anderson says. "I'm just a person expressing my religious beliefs." Evidently, USF Logistics views it not only as a big deal, but a matter that threatens bigger deals. And last week Mrs. Anderson filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; the outcome could affect freedom of religious expression throughout the American workplace. The conflict began in June when an unknown Microsoft contractor expressed offense at Mrs. Anderson's "blessed day" comment and replied by telling her that "Microsoft doesn't play with that s-." USF Logistics Warehouse Manager Chuck Tolley, who joined the company in January, instructed Mrs. Anderson to stop using the phrase or any other religiously tainted speech with clients or co-workers. A company policy update memo was distributed shortly thereafter, according to Mrs. Anderson, which restricted some forms of speech at the job, namely religious and political. The memo evidently did not address the company's unofficial yet enduring toleration of profanity. For USF's part, Mr. Tolley declined to comment on the matter or confirm whether he signed the reprimands. President and CEO Doug Christensen was unavailable for comment, and declined to authorize comment through USF's communications department. Mr. Tolley did confirm, however, that Mr. Christensen is aware of the matter that has garnered increased media attention in recent months. But in a recent interview with The Indianapolis Star, Mr. Christensen expressed his conviction that employee and client comfortability may be threatened by religious speech like "blessed day." In the article, he defended his company as one having a long-standing policy of prohibiting religious or political speech in the course of business transactions. According to Mrs. Anderson, many co-workers have been very supportive over the past few months in the form of phone calls, faxes, and email messages. In one case, a previously unknown truck driver even approached her in the company parking lot and encouraged her to "stay strong and stand firm." Mrs. Anderson put her car in park and the two prayed in the middle of the parking lot. "I was just on cloud nine," she reflected. USF handed Mrs. Anderson a second reprimand with a reiterated warning that future infractions and "insubordination" could get her fired. Why didn't the company fire her as threatened in the June reprimand? Perhaps sensing Mrs. Anderson's growing support, nobody at USF is offering answers, but the prospect of being fired is still real. Mrs. Anderson's church has come to her spiritual and legal aid: "We're all behind what Liz is doing," says Phillips CME senior pastor Oliver Dwayne Walker. The church has hired experienced workplace attorney Kevin Betz to counsel Mrs. Anderson as she works with the EEOC. Asked whether she thinks she will be fired, she pauses and carefully muses over how her faith is employed in her life. She answers yes, but says she's not afraid: "What kind of Christian can I call myself knowing that God gave His own Son for me and I'm going to worry about a job over Him?" She pauses again. "I'm not trying to be a troublemaker. I just love the Lord. I'm not fearful of losing my job. But, I think I will lose my job." Her attorney has advised her not to speculate publicly about future actions she may or may not take. But it's unlikely she'll back down: Mrs. Anderson hints at the strength of her resolve when she ends her phone interview: "and you have a blessed day."

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