Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is one week from tomorrow, on March 8.
Be careful how you celebrate in the workplace. If you’re thinking of bringing in a colorful King Cake to share with your office-mates, maybe you should think twice.
The King Cake is not just a pastry. It’s a potent symbol of Christian faith for some people. That means it has the potential to offend some other people.
That’s what happened in a case decided earlier this month by Alexandria Senior U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton. Teresa Ratledge, a senior principal engineer with GH Engineering, was assigned to work on a government subcontract at the CIA, held by Science Applications International Corporation. After she was terminated on complaints that she fell asleep during the workday, she sued for discrimination, citing her medical conditions of narcolepsy and migraine headaches.
Ratledge also complained about the response in February 2008, when she brought a King Cake to the office. Ratledge sent an e-mail to several colleagues with the subject line “King Cake Info,” providing a description of the historical significance and tradition of the King Cake, which traditionally includes a small plastic figure of the baby Jesus. A CIA coworker sent a response saying the e-mail was inappropriate and did not belong in the workplace on a government computer system.
The complaining coworker followed up with an e-mail to an SAIC program manager, saying the coworker had received several complaints about Ratledge sleeping in meetings with customers. The manager met with both employees to discuss the King Cake e-mail and friction between Ratledge and a customer representative.
Ratledge ultimately was removed from the CIA project, and the Alexandria federal court held she could not sue SAIC because it was not her employer.
Given the disposition of Ratledge’s case, the court did not need to discuss the King Cake issue. But the lawyer who successfully defended against Ratledge’s claim has some advice for people who may be looking this weekend for something to bring in for the office coffee break.
According to McLean lawyer Robert R. Sparks Jr., if someone asked him in advance whether it was OK to do what Ratledge had done, he would say “it’s not a best practice. Religion is a sensitive subject.”
But “we all love” cake. It’s possible to share a King Cake and “tone down the religious significance. You don’t have to describe the religious significance of the cake.” Sparks said that in the SAIC case, Ratledge sent the e-mail after the coworker already told Ratledge in person that she did not want to hear any more about the King Cake.
For Catholics, the King Cake may be more than a tasty treat. But for many people, Mardi Gras is “just another reason to drink,” Sparks said. It’s about as holy as St. Patrick’s Day.
Jay Igiel, the Alexandria lawyer who represented Ratledge, could not be reached for comment.
By Deborah Elkins