Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc., a Canon Group Co. He is also immediate past president of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. The views expressed herein are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position or viewpoint of Océ North America Inc., Canon Inc. or any of the Océ or Canon companies.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Last year’s holiday column addressed the challenge faced by in-house counsel in balancing their personal religious beliefs against the need to be (and perceived to be) unbiased for or against another’s belief system (https://h20cooler.wordpress.com/2010/12/23/inside-perspective-balancing-personal-beliefs-against-corporate-responsibility/). Not much has changed since I wrote that column and I expect that the same discussion will be relevant 20 years from now. Interestingly, this year Congress has been specifically admonished not to use taxpayer funds to send holiday greetings that include the words “Merry Christmas” or “Happy New Year” (although they can say “have a happy new year– referencing the time period of a new year, but not the holiday”).
I have to admit that this is probably a good idea. Although there is no mention of a restriction on extending good wishes for a Happy Hanukkah or Kwanza, I expect that such blessings fall within the general prohibition against sending “holiday wishes” and are similarly excluded. Although some have suggested this prohibition is anti-Christian, in my opinion it falls squarely within the First Amendment. To use taxpayer money to send any greeting furthering a message associated with a religious theme should not be allowed.
The in-house world faces no such prohibitions, but in-house lawyers must always be sensitive to others’ perceptions about their personal beliefs. The last thing any in-house lawyer wants is a Client’s employee to believe that he or she has been treated unfairly because of a religious bias on the part of the general counsel. Generally speaking, the prevalent religious traditions and principles practiced by adherents are consistent with good corporate practice: treat all as you would like to be treated; do not lie, cheat or steal; practice moderation; assist those who require assistance; treat those for whom you work and those who work for you with respect and dignity: and, give a fair day of work for a fair day’s wage.
These canons of good behavior do not have exceptions for those who do not believe as you do – they apply to all, at every level within the organization and regardless of their religious faith.
All of this seems fairly simple. The nature of the attorney’s job requires the skill to be able to separate oneself from the emotional aspects of the job to make objective observations and decisions. However, we all have personal biases and certainly there may be attorneys who have a bias in favor of people who share their faith. Even so, those attorneys must have the emotional intelligence to recognize that bias and consider it as potentially influencing everything they do in connection with their job. The very fact that the emotionally intelligent lawyer recognizes the potential for bias will do much to mitigate the effects of such a bias in connection with his or her job.
Beyond recognizing the potential bias and adjusting for it, in-house counsel must ensure, through their actions, that they are not perceived as having a bias. Of course, we cannot control everyone’s perception of us, but we can certainly behave in such a way that assures the reasonable majority that our actions are taken without regard to our religious affiliations.
Since I am not a member of Congress, I am pleased to be able to close this year’s “holiday” column with a wish for you and your families – that you have a very Merry Christmas, a very Happy Hanukkah, a Happy New Year and a prosperous and fulfilling new year!