During the introductory chit-chat at a business meeting last week, a Republican client asked me about my politics. Everyone knows that it is unsafe to get into that - unless you happen to know what the client wants to hear.
Until now, I had thought that politics was the only tricky subject I was ever likely to be asked about during working hours, but  I have now come across something even more difficult. I was having lunch with a colleague and he asked me "where I stand spiritually". I didn't understand the question to begin with, and he was happy to clarify: "I want to talk about faith."
Now I have faith in a lot of things. I have faith in my ability to sound like I know what I am talking about when I really don't. I have faith in my ability to score a big bonus this year, and I have faith in my wife's ability to spend it all before I get another one.
But this guy wanted to talk about religious faith, which I must confess is not normally a big part of my workday. Perhaps what spurred this question was the fact that one of our employees had recently resigned for religious reasons. Yes, I work in a bank, before you ask, and no, this doesn't happen very often.
Charles, who seemed a perfectly competent employee, was hired to execute transactions in our corporate loans department. He had been with the bank for about two months when he came to see me with a problem.
"I'd like to talk to you about the Yeng Ma transaction," he explained as he sat down, with a bunch of printed e-mails in his hand.
"I'm not entirely familiar with the transaction," I said. "Perhaps you could fill me in on the details."
I remember meeting the chief executive of the Yeng Ma Company, a wholly unremarkable guy and a wholly unremarkable company selling printing equipment.
"Well, it's not so much the Yeng Ma group that I want to talk to you about; it's their CEO. He is openly homosexual."
"Ah huh." Is all I can think of to say. I'd heard this mentioned before and, as far as I could tell, it had no bearing on the credit quality of the company.
"Well, I'm not comfortable with that," Charles said.
"Well I shouldn't think you'll have much to do with the CEO. All you have to do is get credit approval for the loan and administer the payments. I think you'll be able to cope, despite your prejudices."
But this is not the issue.
"Oh, no. It's not that, it's just that under my faith, I believe that homosexuality is against God's teachings. So I can't work for a company that is run by someone like that."
The penny drops. "Your faith? So you're objecting to this client on religious grounds?"
"My faith informs me that assisting this client is wrong. I can't work for the Yeng Ma Company and I'd prefer to resign if you insist that I do."
This is the very first time that I have ever heard anything like this, and I admit to feeling uncertain about how to handle it. I have heard people object to working for cigarette companies, I have known people to refuse to work for defence contractors, but a religious objection to a homosexual chief executive? I tell Charles that I will get back to him after I consult my boss.
"So this guy is refusing to do his job on religious grounds, but he expects us to continue to pay him?" he asks.
"But isn't he entitled to his beliefs, whatever we think of them?"
"Sure. And I can believe whatever I want, too. However, if I work in your butcher's shop and I come in one day and say I will no longer work with meat because I object to the killing of animals, but I'd like you to continue to employ me, would you?"
He's got a point. A loan officer who refuses to work for clients that employ people he doesn't like is not a very useful loan officer. So Charles is serving his God and not the bank.  I hope that works out for him, but  I doubt it will pay quite as well.
And how did I answer my colleague's question about faith and spirituality? I answered the same way I answered my Republican client, and in the same way  I explained my decision to Charles shortly before he left: "Religion and politics. You're going to have to leave them at the door when you come into work in the morning.”
Banishing those uneasy bedfellows - religion and politics - from the workplace
Sunday, October 5, 2008