Religion in the Workplace: Do we dare go there?

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It would no doubt be easier if we could leave our religion at home during the workday. But it’s hard to shut out something that guides much of our work ethic and dictates so many of our daily routines. For many, religion is a way of life. That’s why religion must be a core part of all diversity initiatives, and why it is a bottom-line issue for many companies.

A SHRM/Fortune survey (June 2001), “Impact of Diversity Initiatives on Bottom Line,” affirms benefits from diversity initiatives:

  • 70% said they improve corporate culture.
  • 77% said they help attract new workers.
  • 52% said they improve client relations.
  • 91% said they help an organization to stay ahead of the pack.

In addition, a 2009 Wake Forest University survey found that work-life flexibility (which often correlates at least in part to addressing religious needs) positively impacted the bottom line and that it was associated with improved job commitment. Unfortunately, a 2007 Monster.com survey showed that less than 30% of employees thought their employers were doing a “good” or “excellent” job of supporting work-life balance.

Indeed, the 2001 SHRM/Tanenbaum and 2008 SHRM surveys of human resources professionals revealed the failure of many companies to address religious diversity and the impact of this omission:

  • Less than one-third of the respondents reported that they had any type of written policy on religious diversity in 2001 and only 4% had a separate policy. In 2008, this number dropped to 2%.
  • In 2008, 96% recognized only Christian holidays as official holidays in their workplace.
  • In 2001, only 25% permitted holiday swapping; in 2008, only 3% more offered paid leave for days that are not part of the organization’s standard holiday calendar.
  • While most companies now offer some form(s) of religious accommodation, there’s still some disconnect between what’s offered and what’s requested.
  • At the beginning of the 21st century, in 2001, one-third credited increased cooperation and communication among employees to the acceptance of religious diversity. In contrast, SHRM’s 2008 survey found that it is still an issue and that the most significant result to occur when religious diversity is properly managed is improved morale.

Despite this last finding, it’s clear that religious diversity has not received the same focus as other forms of diversity. And this is true, even though religious bias is a reality in the workplace and a strong concern of workers. It’s also a bottom-line issue for management, with a demonstrable impact on:

  • employee satisfaction;
  • employee retention;
  • productivity;
  • replacement costs.

In 1999, Tanenbaum fielded a benchmarking national survey that was the first survey to ask workers themselves about their experience of religious bias in the workplace. Seventy percent of the participants were members of what in the United States are minority religions—Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto. The results are startling in their own right. The bias perceived was significant, in stark contrast to how many human resources professionals view the situation:

  • When asked about specific behaviors that are discriminatory or reflect religious bias, 66% reported that some form of religious bias occurred in their workplace.
  • Two-thirds were concerned about religious bias in the workplace.
  • One in five were themselves, or knew someone on the job who was, on the receiving end of such conduct.
  • These are not isolated incidents. Of those who experienced religious bias, 45% said they are treated differently at least a couple of times a month. Muslims felt the most vulnerable in the workplace, followed closely by Hindus and Buddhists.

This doesn’t mean that every case was a deliberate action of bigotry. More likely, most of this bias is inadvertent and stems from lack of knowledge. But they are not infrequent, and they do have consequences.

Most of the 1999 sample consisted of educated managerial, professional, and technical workers—just the kind of employee any business wants to keep. Yet, of those who had been exposed to bias:

  • 45% were thinking about quitting their job.
  • Almost half said it negatively affected their performance.
  • Three-quarters suffered in silence without reporting their distress.

Such findings must be a wake-up call to management. If bias so deeply pervades the higher levels of the workforce, imagine what must go on across your company.

Because so few victims report their complaints, human resources professionals rarely see the magnitude of the problem. On the contrary, in the 2001 SHRM/Tanenbaum survey, most of these pros reported:

  • No change in the number of religious bias incidents occurred over a five-year period.
  • Different treatment of people from different religious traditions occurs infrequently.

Seven years later, once again, the 2008 SHRM survey reached similar findings, again supporting the conclusion that this is still a highly underreported phenomenon. Across seven indicia of religious bias (e.g., proselytizing, employees harassing co-workers), an average of 90% of respondents reported that they did not actually see an increase in the number of incidents.


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