Separation of Church and Cubicle: Religion in the Workplace

Religion at work

Religion in America is once again undergoing a period of intense examination. The so-called religious freedom bills bubbling up in Indiana, Arkansas and many other states may rightly be considered thinly veiled reactions to same-sex marriage and the breathtaking speed with which it has gained acceptance.

But these bills might mask a trend of the past two decades among those with sincerely held religious beliefs: Workers are increasingly bringing theology into the office, factory, retail space and public sphere and expecting greater and sometimes surprising forms of accommodation. As a result, religious conflict in the American workplace is up. “It’s the fastest growth area in discrimination,” says Robert E. Gregg, an attorney with Boardman & Clark in Madison, Wis. In terms of litigation, “religion is growing faster than sex and race.” Twitter 

Some recent cases: The Supreme Court is considering whether Abercrombie & Fitch overstepped its image-conscious practices and veered into religious discrimination when it refused employment to a job applicant wearing a hijab. A Hamden, Conn., firefighter filed a lawsuit against the town claiming a pattern of harassment because, as a Jehovah’s Witness, he declined to march in a Memorial Day parade or raise a flag. Those activities run counter to the religion’s mandate to refrain from worshipping anything man-made.

Sometimes, employers have even found themselves struggling to resolve seemingly conflicting federal laws. Pennsylvania quarry owner Dan Russell was content to allow his Amish workers to not trade their traditional hats for hardhats, which complied with a religious exemption provided by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. But the government informed him that in this case, the 1977 federal Mine Safety and Health Act applied — and that unless his Amish workers agreed to don hard hats, he would have to shut down the quarry. Now, instead of employing 16 Amish workers, he has five, assigning them to parts of the quarry where the more stringent guidelines do not apply, according to the Allentown, Pa., Morning Call.

In terms of litigation, “religion is growing faster than sex and race.” –Robert E. Gregg

“I think what’s so interesting is every group can end up feeling persecuted,” says Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard. “Having strong values from one’s particular persuasion can make people on the one hand incredibly valuable. But on the flip side, it can go awry very strongly.”

Where to Draw the Line

There is a case to be made for bringing religion into the workplace, experts say. Religion makes people happier, and happier means more productive. Employees who are permitted to discuss religion openly at work report having higher job-satisfaction levels, according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

The study, “Applying Models of Employee Identity Management Across Cultures: Christianity in the USA and South Korea,” was authored by Simon Fraser University professor Brent Lyons, University of Maryland professor Jennifer Wessel, University of Hawaii, Manoa, professor Sonia Ghumman, Michigan State University professor Ann Marie Ryan and Kansas State University doctoral student Sooyeol Kim.

The study looked at a sampling of workers who identified as Christian, and found that pressure to conform and reduce self-expression had a distancing effect on workplace dynamics. “Engagement in distancing strategies relates to negative outcomes in both the [U.S.] and South Korea, including increased turnover intentions and reduced job satisfaction and well-being,” the researchers noted. They advised that managers should foster a tolerant environment that allows workers to “affirm” their religion.

But what happens when one employee’s increase in happiness means another’s discontent? Is proselytizing just a form of self-expression? “People are more inclined to bring their whole selves to work,” says Stewart Friedman, director of Wharton’s Work/Life Integration Project. “It’s about family; it’s about who you are as a person. The problem with some religions is that they can be divisive, and so where it seems to me to make sense to draw the line is if you are professing your religious beliefs and that causes harm to other people. That’s a problem.”

Workers did not arrive at this place entirely on their own. One workplace trend has specifically encouraged them to bring their personality to work — the push for authenticity. “I am really troubled by the simplicity of bringing your whole self to work,” says Rothbard. “The fact of the matter is, it is difficult and complex to bring your whole self to work, and people who do it successfully are doing it carefully.”

Smooth integration of religion into the workplace is a fairly limited phenomenon, says Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics Amy Sepinwall. One example is the small business — say, a kosher butcher, where everyone is the same religion and no employee needs special permission to take off on the Sabbath. Here, “there can be a great sense of comfort or ease for the employees as well as management,” says Sepinwall. The other format that works is when an employer of a more heterogeneous workforce holds prayer meetings or religious events, but does not compel anyone to attend. “All of that is to say that I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to have religious practice in the workplace,” she notes. “But I could see that it could become alienating if the practice is enforced.”

Muslims in Cheboygan

But it’s not just the take-your-authentic-self movement that is causing friction in the workplace. Religion itself has become more polarized. The number of Americans who don’t identify with a religious affiliation has jumped — 21% in 2014, up from 8% in 1990, according to the General Social Survey. Additionally, an increasing number of Americans say religion is losing influence. A 2014 Pew Research Center study found that 72% think its influence has waned, up five points from 2010. And yet, complaints from Americans claiming that their religious rights have been trampled are way up. Between 1997 and 2014, the number of religion-based charges filed under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission doubled — to 3,549 from 1,709.

“Having strong values from one’s particular persuasion can make people on the one hand incredibly valuable. But on the flip side, it can go awry very strongly.” –Nancy Rothbard

What is behind this dissonance — fewer religious Americans, more Americans complaining? In part, it comes from the fact that recent waves of immigrants have brought with them many more kinds of religions, and these immigrants are settling in places beyond big, diverse cities. “We’re in a period of time right now when there are more religions in the workplace than there ever were,” says Gregg. “People used to live in clumps, but now are living all over the place. A lot of new groups are moving into areas they weren’t in before. There were no Muslims in Cheboygan. There are areas where there were no Muslims at all, and now they are building a mosque. We have one of the largest Buddhist groups in a rural area in the country.”

In addition, Gregg adds, “we are in a period of time when people are insisting on being people of faith, and a growing number of people don’t want to have faith inflicted upon them. They want to be people of faith, but not your faith.” At the same time, he says, some people who are religious are now more likely to adhere to more orthodox strains.

Friedman puts it this way: “People are less identified with organized religion, and there is a more strident fundamentalist movement.” Why the extremes? “It seems we are living in a more uncertain world, and for many people that is frightening. We are more conscious through the Internet of the horrible things in the world, so seeking asylum and comfort in a proscribed path for living kind of makes sense.”

Still, even casually religious workers who feel that their faith is keeping them from job opportunities might be on to something. Fictitious resumes listing a religious identity sent to employers in the South were 26% less likely to elicit a response than those listing no religion, reported a 2014 study titled, “Religious Affiliation and Hiring Discrimination in the American South: A Field Experiment” by Michael Wallace, Bradley R.E. Wright and Allen Hyde from the University of Connecticut. Further, potential employers showed differing responses to specific religious affiliations. Among 3,200 resumes sent, those claiming a Muslim affiliation generated 38% fewer email responses and 54% fewer phone calls. Atheists, pagans and Catholics also proved to be a hurdle for employers, though not as much as Muslims. Only the fictitious Evangelical and Jewish applicants appeared to suffer no particular disadvantage.

The Abercrombie & Fitch case currently before the Supreme Court is being closely watched by employers, some of whom fear a decision that will leave them in a Catch 22 legal position. Abercrombie contends that it did not know that the scarf worn by the applicant, Samantha Elauf, was a religious item. If the burden of knowing whether an applicant needs a religious accommodation is placed upon the employer, some argue, this will force companies to ask applicants about their religion, and expose employers to an additional potential wave of discrimination claims.

When Religion Trumps Anti-discrimination

Outright discrimination is one thing. But some forms of bias in the workplace are more subtle. Does a non-Jesuit employee at a Jesuit university have as much of a chance of a promotion as the Jesuit worker? “It’s hard to get away from. It highlights how different you are,” says Rothbard. “If you are working for a company that has strong religious values, perhaps a Catholic university, you’ve elected into that, and it could be challenging for you.” But there are things an employer can do to signal that merit — not religious affiliation — is the abiding measure of value. “One way of doing it is where you have exemplars of people who are different from a religious standpoint, and you show that you are celebrating those differences. Part of the problem is that it can feel artificial. It’s tricky to do well,” she says.

“We are more conscious through the Internet of the horrible things in the world, so seeking asylum and comfort in a proscribed path for living kind of makes sense.” –Stewart Friedman

But if you’ve chosen to work for an employer with a religious affiliation, you have to accept religion as part of the deal. A coach leading a football team in prayer before a game at a religious school must be expected by the agnostic player, and is fine, says Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor Kenneth L. Shropshire, director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative. In non-religious schools, however, other rules apply. “Players on their own can spontaneously do it or do it anyway they want, but no one can be compelled to do it,” says Shropshire. Sometimes it’s the Lord’s Prayer, “and for some teams it’s as simple as praying to whomever your higher being is so that no one gets hurt,” he says.

Innocuous as that act might be, it’s the sort of thing that increasingly makes some people chaff. Some more religious subsets of American society are now expecting the world to bend to their rules, such as ultra-Orthodox Jews reportedly asking women on planes to move their seats so they can adhere to religious guidelines they say require men and women to remain separate. This kind of expectation marks a change, says Sepinwall. “These are not the traditional kinds of requests of accommodation,” she says.

In the past, requests would have extended to the right to certain days off on religious holidays, or not being asked to perform tasks that violate a religious practice. “A lot of requests were intended to maintain a kind of insularity and tradition, and they weren’t going to impose costs on anyone else,” Sepinwall notes.

Many observers say that the response from religious conservatives to what they perceive as threats posed by same-sex marriage has been to throw down the gauntlet. So-called religious freedom laws being mulled at the state level, as well as the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, promise implications in the workplace.

The Hobby Lobby case, which, in effect, gave corporations rights of religious freedom, was about the arts-and-crafts company’s right to deny contraceptive coverage to its employees. But it might also usher in the ability of another employer to refuse insurance coverage for the spouse in a same-sex marriage. Indeed, with no gay and lesbian anti-discrimination employment laws in many states — not to mention at the federal level — “the worry is that these religious freedom laws are going to trump our commitment to anti-discrimination,” says Sepinwall.

Making religion and the workplace comfortable bedfellows comes down to making a distinction between religion and spirituality for Wharton’s Friedman. Religion divides people. Spirituality, on the other hand, embraces many of the same virtuous qualities any employer wants to see take hold: “The notion of having a spiritual consciousness, being rooted in values such as loving kindness and the connection of all humans as one family, treating others as you wish to be treated, karma, taking care of the planet we share — these are all very useful values for any organizational setting,” he points out.

Rothbard says it’s not about bringing your authentic self to work. “I call it bringing your best self to work,” she says. “Bring your best self to work and talk about aspects of religious identity in a way that might be different, but is hopefully respectful of others’ identities.”

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