Human Resources News & Insights

Company out $5.1M after forcing employees to ‘harness happiness’

Any employer would love to have workers who are emotionally aware and good at solving problems, but one company went about teaching these skills the wrong way.

New York company United Health Programs of America was sued by the EEOC after allegedly forcing its employees to partake in the practices of a belief system known as “Harnessing Happiness,” or “Onionhead,” which the lawsuit claims to be a violation of Title VII under the Civil Rights Act.

Mandatory group prayers

Onionhead is a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching conflict resolution and similar life handling skills. The creator of this belief system, who happened to be the CEO’s aunt and was employed as a consultant at United Health Programs of America, would regularly lead employees in certain exercises.

But what the employees were told to do wasn’t exactly your typical team-building exercises.

The company required its employees to participate in group prayers, candle burning and discussion of spiritual texts, all as a part of Onionhead. One employee was fired for refusing to participate, while nine others claimed following these practices against their will created a hostile work environment.

‘Unique type of religious discrimination’

A jury agreed with the EEOC, deciding Onionhead was considered a religion under Title VII, which forbids employers from forcing employees to engage in religious practices in the workplace. Employers are also prohibited from firing those who refuse to participate. United Health Programs of America will pay $5.1 million in damages to ten employees.

Most religious discrimination cases deal with employers preventing workers from following their own religion, and EEOC trial attorney Charles Coleman, Jr. pointed out the reversal:

“This case features a unique type of religious discrimination, in that the employer was pushing its religion on employees. Nonetheless, Title VII prohibits religious discrimination of this sort, which makes what happened at [the company] unlawful.”

While what happened at United Health Programs of America was an extreme case, it’s a good reminder to keep anything related to religion out of the workplace.

 

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