The EEOC recently filed suit against an employer after it established a self-improvement program based on the “Onionhead” belief system. The Onionhead belief system is related to the Harnessing Happiness Foundation. The Harnessing Happiness Foundation is a “501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to emotional knowledge and intelligence, conflict resolution and life handling skills for all ages.” The Foundation’s website offers the following description of the belief system:
“Onionhead is part of Harnessing Happiness. We used an onion as a medium to express peeling our feelings, as a way of healing our feelings. * * * * Onionhead is this incredibly pure, wise and adorable character who teaches us how to name it - claim it - tame it - aim it. Onion spelled backwards is ‘no-i-no’. He wants everyone to know how they feel and then know what to do with those feelings. He helps us direct our emotions in a truthful and compassionate way, which in turn assists us to communicate more appropriately and peacefully. We then approach life from a place of our wellness rather than a place of our wounds.”The EEOC claims that the employer administered the program by requiring employees to say “I love you,” engage in prayer sessions and discuss personal issues with co-workers and management. Various employees were allegedly subjected to adverse action for refusing to participate in such activities. According to the EEOC, “What defendants glibly call 'self-improvement workshops' and 'corporate wellness programs' were actually compelled religious activities led by … management in violation of Title VII.” What is the take-away? Employers should avoid creating a culture where employees feel compelled to participate in “wellness programs” or other similar activities. Even seemingly harmless activities can potentially result in a lawsuit down the line.