Today’s Workplace

The issue of religious diversity in the workplace was largely ignored until it emerged full-blown on September 11, 2001. Terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. brought out the best and the worst in us. The best was the outpouring of support strangers gave to each other. The worst was the floodgate of hate that was loosed on anyone seen as “the other.”

Today’s workplace, in contrast to an earlier era, is filled with those who are seen as “other.” Religion is a big part of that “otherness.” This gets even more complicated because most Americans don’t know much about religions outside of their own. Survey data confirm that only 28% say they understand evangelical Christianity “very well,” 17% say the same about Judaism, while barely 7% say they understand Islam “very well.”

Religion may be private and personal – at the start of this new century, 30% of Americans felt that it was best to avoid the subject while at work. Yet, we’ve learned that religion isn’t being left at home. In fact, more than half of Americans report basing work decisions on religious beliefs, and more than 60% report talking to colleagues about it. We ignore religion in the workplace at our risk.

Four major trends are driving the growing visibility of religion in the workplace: immigration, age, the political climate, and globalization.


As noted, over the past 40 years there has been a significant shift in the U.S. population. No longer is the foreign-born population less than 5% of the country. It’s now more than 12.5% of the population. No longer are these foreign-born neighbors mostly from Europe. Today, most come from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Two-thirds of these immigrants are in the labor force. As such, they bring with them religious customs that are unfamiliar in the U.S. workplace. Questions are being raised in companies throughout this country concerning head coverings, beards, prayer, and foods.

The United States is still overwhelmingly Christian — around 75%. But Christianity is itself subdivided into many different denominations with differing traditions, rituals and beliefs that account for many of the over 4,500 religions that make up the religious mosaic of the United States. Judaism and Islam are distant seconds, with the latter being the fastest-growing faith group. The rest are a rich tapestry of Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Shinto, and countless others.

A 2001 Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM)/Tanenbaum survey confirmed the growing religious diversity of the workplace. More than one-third of the respondents reported a broader range of religions in their workplaces than five years before. In a 2008 follow-up SHRM survey, a full 89% of companies reported religious diversity among their employees, with 25% of those specifying that their company had a “great deal” of religious diversity.

Our unquenchable need for skilled labor is feeding the trend. HB-1 visas, which temporarily grant foreign-born individuals the right to work in the U.S., for example, are designed to import the skills we don’t grow at home (although in poor economy, we import fewer workers this way). Unfamiliar forms of worship and practices come with these skilled individuals and are continuing to change the workplace’s landscape.


It’s true that we’re all getting older. But have you thought about what that means when a whole country gets older? In the United States, birth rates are low, and so are death rates. In Europe, birth rates are even lower, with some countries heading toward negative population growth. That means the labor force is aging. In a changing labor market in which skilled needs can’t be filled from a younger labor pool, we often turn to older workers. Indeed, many have stayed in the workforce longer. Here’s the catch: surveys show that, as we get older and are faced with our mortality, we tend to become more devout. Religion matters more to today’s aging workforce, and that affects the workplace.

The data on younger Americans entering the workforce (or trying to enter it) is murkier. The data shows a rise in adults under age 30 who identify as unaffiliated, but the numbers vary with the survey. A 2005 survey by a UCLA research institute of college students found that nearly 8 in 10 students say they believe in God, and have attended religious services in the past year. The 2007 Pew Forum U.S. Religious Landscape survey found that 25% of adults under age 30 identified as unaffiliated.

In contrast, a Harvard professor, Robert Putnam, puts the number of unaffiliated young Americans closer to 30-40%. He explains this trend as the result of young people – Generations X (29-42 year olds) and Y (18-28 year-olds) – associating organized religion with political and social conservatism. Putnam says that “while these young ‘nones’ may not belong to a church, they are not necessarily atheists.” However, he believes that this current change may indicate a shift in, rather than an end to, religious practices and predicts a great burst in religious innovation to come.

In any case, this has implications for the workplace. What is certain is that the Generation Y’s and the “millennials” – those now entering the workforce –are more likely to view religion, religious identification and religious practice very differently from previous generations. Human Resources research actually shows that, as a group, millennials in particular have higher expectations around diversity and work/life balance and being able to be themselves at work. Predictably, that will include their shifting ideas about religion and religious identity.

Political Climate

Religious fervor is easy to manipulate. If it weren’t, no one would highjack a loaded plane and fly it into a skyscraper. Or murder the heads of the Jewish and Egyptian states for their peace work. These, of course, are the extreme cases. But religion has been thrust into the political arena in more benign ways as well. In the process, workers have been emboldened to assert their religious rights.

Since 1998, at the EEOC alone (i.e., not the cases brought solely in the courts), complaints of religious bias in the workplace jumped by more than 80% while the price paid to settle such cases tripled. Not all cases are very public but those that are show that these statistics are not an aberration. In September 2009, AT&T paid out $1.3 million dollars to settle a religious discrimination complaint.


To succeed in a global marketplace, an organization must recruit diverse talent, retain them, and penetrate diverse markets. A successful company must tune in to culture, and religion is the largest factor in culture and a core part of identity. But global corporations have other considerations as well, including new legal frameworks mandating accommodation for religiously diverse employees.
Global companies are subject to the laws of their local offices. Thus, for example, all European Union (EU) countries were required to come into compliance with EU Council Directive 2000/78/EC (November 27, 2000) by the end of 2003. The directive required member states to enact legislation prohibiting religious discrimination in employment. Each member state has responded with its own legal framework, and the first cases began trickling down in 2006.