The Vine: June 26, 2013
I work in a large government office for a statewide law-enforcement agency in the South. I'm also an atheist, a fact that I usually keep to myself, because: law enforcement. The South.
Board members who are all devout Baptists, one of whom is a former Christian Coalition Legislator of the Year. Jesus gets brought up here a lot, is what I'm saying.
Three people at work know I'm an atheist. Two are Sympathetic Co-Workers, who are friends and roll their eyes in solidarity whenever our co-workers/bosses get preachy. The third, C, is…someone I should not have told (in a private, non-work-related conversation), and only learned this after the fact.
Recently, a Sympathetic Co-Worker came to me with a heads-up: another co-worker (we'll call her B) had just said to her that she didn't like the fact that an atheist was in charge of a housing program involving faith-based providers. Sympathetic Co-Worker has been with the agency a long time and quite high-ranking, so B didn't just say this to anybody.
Two days later, I was informed by my boss that the Board wants me to give them a presentation on our faith-based programs, and to expect very pointed questioning on it. According to Boss, the Board has never shown any interest or concern for the state of our faith-based programming before, and this request from them came out of nowhere. It should also be noted that 1) C is friends with B, 2) B is very chummy with one of the Board members, 3) B is a pastor who used to be in charge of the faith-based programming herself, and 4) this kind of behavior is not out of the ordinary for her.
While I have no definitive proof, I'm pretty sure C told B about my atheism, and that B went to the Board about it.
Sars, I work very hard at my job. My lack of faith has no bearing on how I deal with our faith-based providers, and I am regularly commended for my work. I don't talk about religion at work at all, nor am I on any type of crusade to get rid of our faith-based programming. We're in the South; most of the resources I work with are faith-based by default.
Needless to say, I'm furious. I furious that B didn't come to me or my boss if she had a problem. I'm furious that she went to THE FREAKING BOARD and undermined my ability to do my job, though I'm not sure if she flat-out told them I'm an atheist or did it in a more underhanded way. I'm furious that I feel like I'm back in high school, and that a grown woman is acting this way.
In some parts of the country this wouldn't be a problem, but down in the Bible belt it's a very big deal. I'm worried that this could affect my opportunities for advancement in this agency, because what if I'm up for a promotion and the person in charge of it is very religious (a likely scenario) and she's spread my lack of faith around to everyone in the top brass? Knowing how B is acting, it's feasible someone else feels the same way and could try to find a "legitimate" reason to demote me or shuffle me off to another department. If that happened, I have no way to prove it's because of my religious leanings, so legal action would be out of the question.
I plan on giving the presentation and being awesome at it, and part of me is thinking I should just leave it at that. The other part of me wants to go to B about this, because I want to know who else she's told and what exactly she's saying to them. If this were a peer venting about this to other "underlings," I'd just roll my eyes and deal with it, but this is a person who is pretty much trying to actively sabotage me professionally.
Should I talk to B? I'd probably phrase it along the lines of, "I understand you've learned I'm an atheist and have some reservations about XYZ. What can I do to ease your mind?" if I did, even though I'd rather bust her for being such an ass. Basically, I want her to know that I know what she's been doing, because then she might actually knock it off with the added bonus of making me feel better. I just have no clue if that would be a good idea, or if it's a good idea but I should take use a different script. Should I even mention anything to C, and if so, what? I've never had to deal with petty office politics before and am at a loss.
Faithless (now in God AND humanity!)
I wouldn't mention anything to anyone except maybe your boss, because I don't see what good it could do, on any level. Acing the presentation might not do any good either, in terms of communicating to B that any shit she's trying to stir about your atheism making you a questionable fit for your job isn't going to rise the way she wants to, but then again, it might — and it's the only thing you can really do. Your job. And if you do your job to the satisfaction of your direct superior — and you don't say anything here about feeling undermined by him/her, or that s/he's said anything to you about your atheism or any other doubts s/he has about your performance, so I assume you're good on that front — then B can go scratch.
It's seldom that simple, of course, and it's natural to fantasize about receiving a standing ovation at the presentation, smiling warmly, then observing while looking pointedly at B that you hope this will put an end to distracting wastes of everyone's time, but…you know. People like B only get shut down like that in the movies.
So, don't say anything to her, because if she's in fact looking for a reason to rally the troops against you, anything with even the faintest whiff of "I'm onto your shit, bitch" is going to become that reason. (I know you have a non-confrontational script in mind, but she's going to sense your resentment, and it won't go well.) You have Sympathetic Co-Workers, and presumably if B is really on a witch hunt here, the high-ranking SCW can curb that.
Don't say anything to C, either, because if you point out that she spoke out of turn, she wonders why it's a big deal, and then she asks other people why XYZ is a big deal, and then all of a sudden it's…a big deal.
If you say anything to your boss, it should be because Boss asked you where you think the sudden need for a review came from, and even then, reporting on the telephone game is going to make you look just as bad as B. Give the presentation, schedule a follow-up meeting with Boss to make sure everything went smoothly from his/her perspective, talk about how to avoid distracting wastes of time like this in the future, and if s/he's satisfied with your response, end it there.
It's often said that the only thing worse for your career than getting involved in office politics is not getting involved, but this isn't really "politics." This is a misguided attempt by one person to make her workplace uniformly observant, and it's neither realistic nor legal, so document whatever you can, but at the same time, understand that giving it too much mental real estate isn't wise.