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Religion in the Workplace

There are all sorts of things that happen in the workplace—love affairs, betting pools, competition for prime office space, discussions over trivial things that turn into squabbles over trivial things and, yes, even a bit of productive work—but one thing that seems to be on the rise is religious tension among coworkers. 

In a recent survey by the Institute for Corporate Productivity, a third of the employers who participated said that they had seen personal clashes in the workplace over religion. What’s more, 31% reported that the unsolicited sharing of religious views has been a problem in their companies and that 13% said that they have employees who, because of their religious beliefs, refused to do certain work or associate with certain co-workers. 

Ah! America in the 21st Century. What’s next? Will we see vegetarians refusing to work with carnivores? How about cat people eschewing dog people? Maybe we’ll have to deal with liberals and conservatives refusing to work together. Oh wait, we already have that. I am sure that by now, some of you are thinking that I am trivializing the issue. After all, this is religion we are talking about, not taxes, menu choices or companion animals. We’re talking about God and the right way to live and worship to keep Him happy. Fair enough, but humor me a moment while I try to put this issue in perspective. 

The Nature of the Conflict

Conflicts such as these happen when something that, for all intents and purposes, should be a quiet, personal lens through which to look at the world becomes public. The emphasis here is on personal. If the issue is a preference for one kind of literature or music over another, that question is not particularly personal and so it promotes discussion and sharing. Can it go overboard? Sure, but the incidence of that is rare when compared to a discussion of religious belief. Why? Because unlike religion—especially fundamental religion—my choice of music is not mutually exclusive with your choice of music. My Mozart and your R.E.M. can coexist on the same shelf quite nicely. 

Not so with religion. Religions, insular and provincial as they tend to be, are mutually exclusive. Each sees itself as chosen, as the right path to heaven, as carrying out the mandates of God. The notable exceptions to this are Judaism and Buddhism, both of which—while maintaining their own hubris —seem quite content to share the world with other faiths. That said, I could make the point that all of the world’s religions can’t be right. I don’t believe that anyone could argue with that but that is not the point. No, the question—and the only reasonable topic for discussion—is how to stop this nonsense. 

To Quash or Not to Quash, That is the Question

As a business owner, you do walk a fine line under the law when it comes to religion. Yet, while you cannot discriminate against any religion, you are also responsible for promoting a safe and harmonious workplace. You are between the proverbial rock and a hard place; hardly an enviable situation. What can you do? 

For many, the first idea would be to quash all discussion of religion in the workplace. If you can pull that off, more power to you, but I have my doubts. The difficulty is that you would be working against two very real forces—the power of ideas and the evangelical (read ‘expansionist’) nature of certain religions. Trying to stop the transmission of ideas is like catching an ocean wave with chicken wire. Just ask any of the old Soviet officials that are still around. It can’t be done. As for the evangelical bent of certain religions, that means that they feel God doesn’t want them keeping their mouths shut and folks like that tend to follow their pastor or God more attentively in such matters than they follow their employer. Finally dealing with these forces is likely to open you up to discrimination charges if you don’t handle it just right and that kind of mess is the last thing you need. 

Quashing religion in the workplace, therefore, is not really practical. There are, however, alternatives.
The Religiously Diverse Workplace

Conflict comes when two people cannot or will not agree on an issue and one or both of them refuse to simply agree to disagree. Conflict escalates when the atmosphere of the place that conflict is happening in permits it. 

Work First

It is important that your employees understand that whoever and whatever they are outside your company’s door, as soon as they cross that threshold they are first and foremost employees of your company. That means you expect them to behave as such and that if they bring any of their personal issues—religion, politics, national origin, race, lite beer or regular—into the workplace and it causes problems, those problems will be dealt with as a disciplinary issue. After all, it will hurt your company’s productivity and morale. Remember, in this respect; treat religion as you would politics or any other fractious issue. Firing someone because they are a certain religion is discrimination. Firing them for starting a fight over their religion is not. 

Promote Understanding and Acceptance

This might be a little more difficult than merely regulating behavior, but it is necessary if you want to decrease the number of times that behavior crops up. The key is to integrate everyone into the company culture as deeply as possible and build bridges between employees by having them help each other. Here are some ideas you might try:

  • Be flexible with holidays . Most business holidays are Christian holidays. That can be a problem for everyone else. Where possible, allow workers to swap holidays—I work for you on Good Friday if you take my shift on Yom Kippur. This will build a sense of mutual support between coworkers. After all, they are giving each other to opportunity to observe properly, which demonstrates acceptance, cooperation and goodwill that crosses religious boundaries. Once you can do that, the rivalry and the interpersonal conflict will begin to fade.
  • Accommodate religious needs . That Muslim you employ would probably appreciate a footbath and some time each day to pray and that Sabbath-observant Jew would appreciate leaving early on Friday to make it home before sundown. If you have someone who keeps kosher (or has some other religious diet), make sure there is something they can eat at company functions.
  • Schedule meetings and functions properly . All company events should be held at a time when everyone can attend and participate fully. If you have an all hands meeting on Saturday, don’t expect your observant Jewish employees to attend (and if they do, don’t expect them to be happy). Having the company’s monthly steakhouse outing on a Friday may not go over well with your Catholic employees. 

These last two demonstrate the same acceptance, cooperation and goodwill as the first, but they do it on a company level and they can help defuse problems before they appear. Remember, what each has in common is that they all identify what your employees need to feel fully connected with their coworkers and with the company in general and they provide that. 

The Bottom Line

By setting the priorities and the rules of acceptable behavior for your company; and minimizing the differences between your employees by recognizing and respecting their needs, you will go a long way toward mitigating the problems caused by religion—and most other fractious issues—that could reduce productivity and harm morale. In fact, knowing that you, as the owner, actually care about this important area of their lives, could very well boost productivity and that, as they say, is very good for business.

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