Is It OK To Be Religious At Work?

Avatar of Dannielle Blumenthal
Dannielle Blumenthal

“A guy tried to join a club that doesn’t let the Jews in.

‘What’s your name?’ ‘Jack Smith.’

‘What kind of a car do you have?’ ‘Saab.’

‘Where do the kids go ot school?’ ‘Yale.’

‘What’s your religion?’ ‘Goyish.’

We are Hasidim.”Comedy roast Hasidic-style feat. Shaya & Itche

Over the years I’ve met people of many faiths at work – Jewish like me, Christian, Muslim.

Of those for whom religion is a big part of their lives, they share one thing in common: Fear. They don’t feel comfortable talking about religion at work. They don’t think it’s acceptable to others.

It’s always been amazing to me, and odd because I think religion is beautiful. I’m inspired by people of faith. I like to learn about what others believe, what they do, why and how.

Lately it seems like people are a bit more comfortable with having a religious identity, and displaying it – just a little.

What are your thoughts on religion at work? Is it OK to talk about it, do you feel comfortable talking about your faith, or do you think all such matters are better left at home?

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Peter Sperry

The government work environment is not quite as openly hostile to religion as it has been in the past but unless your denomination embraces beliefs and practices acceptable at a Georgetown or Manhattan cocktail party, discussing those beliefs at work may not be a wise career move. Government tends to be very PC. Openly expressing religious views which deviate from PC orthodoxy may seem like innocent hallway or lunchtime conversation; but incur very serious penalties. During the 90s there were several Merit Systems Protection Board and Federal Court cases involving individuals who were disciplined or threatened with dismissal for declining to participate in training activities which required them to positively affirm agreement with statements and beliefs directly contrary to the doctrines of their religion. While almost all of them ultimately kept there jobs, their future promotions were few and far between. Most training programs have been revised to be slightly less antagonistic toward religion and to respect the rights of individuals to remain silent. But the underlying atmosphere has not changed all that much and it is probably a good idea to avoid religious discussion in the workplace.

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Henry Brown

I am of the opinion that one can talk about religion, engage in religious activities as long as you don’t require me partaking in either the conversation or activity.

Having said this, I would never start a discussion regarding religion or engage in religious activity in the workplace….

I accepted at face value explanations for behavior of my staff members based on religious beliefs…

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Dannielle Blumenthal

My focus is communication to enhance the functioning of an organization and to that end I think it is possible and important to encourage people to bring their whole selves to work.

Religion, faith, spirituality are critical aspects of diversity. When we stifle that, we disengage the workforce in a significant way. When we celebrate it in ways that don’t threaten, we show that we are truly committed to intellectual diversity as well rather than the groupthink that keeps us dysfunctional at times.

For example: Imagine if we celebrated wearing religious attire at work rather than the Western suit. I know Jewish people who do not wear the headcovering (kippa) because they don’t want to be “marked” or discriminated against and imagine it is similar for those of other faiths.

Another example: Imagine if we set aside prayer rooms so that people who pray multiple times a day can do that without significantly interfering with their work. I am aware of an agency that does this. It can also be used for meditation. (Just like there are lactation rooms.)

A third example: Imagine if we held cultural food celebrations so that we could learn more about faith in the context of nationality and ethnicity. I just learned about a food called “shabich” in Israel that is the most popular street food around. It is derived from the Sabbath breakfast food of Iraqi Jews (fried eggplant and hardboiled eggs) and stuffed in a pita (because everything in Israel is stuffed in a pita). I learned from this same article that falafel and hummus are originally Arab foods (see here). Considering what is going on in the Middle East it is nice to know that Israelis and Arabs (and Jews and Muslims) are in fact very similar in many ways. Cultural knowledge brings understanding and in a larger sense, peace.

A fourth example, a bit more complicated but I think necessary, has to do with helping people of faith to adapt to workplaces where the norms directly conflict with religion, and in turn helping supervisors to understand the implications of faith for some of their employees. (Example – the ultra-Orthodox Jewish practice not to shake hands with someone of the opposite sex; for those who are not familiar with it, refusal to shake hands can seem like an insult.)

Unfortunately much policy and practice seems to be driven by fear, stagnation or simply a lack of time due to more pressing operational matters. But think about it – we take the time to recruit people, we pay for training, we depend on them to work together on critical projects, and so much of our institutional knowledge is invested in their brains. Their hearts as well should be engaged in the community that supports the mission.

To that end I agree with Facebook’s philosophy as expressed in this letter to investors:

We hope to strengthen how people relate to each other….Personal relationships are the fundamental unit of our society. Relationships are how we discover new ideas, understand our world and ultimately derive long-term happiness.”

This is very much about intelligent investment in human capital…by encouraging physical fitness we cut down on sick time later on; by encouraging and celebrating spiritual self-expression (again, as long as it does not impinge on the rights of others) we cut down on disengagement and improve morale and therefore productivity.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Two cents: If we believe that religion is just like anything else that we “are” — graduate of a particular school or member of a club / organization, born as a specific race / ethnicity / nationality /gender / orientation, participant in a hobby or interest — then it should be just as open for conversation as anything else. We should be not afraid to talk about it out of fear. If it’s a strong part of our identity, it likely drives the way we approach our work. To ask someone to not share that part of themselves, in my opinion, is to ask them to act without integrity to some degree.
(Footnote on
“integrity”: stems from the Latin adjective integer – whole, complete. In this context, integrity is the inner sense of “wholeness” deriving from qualities such as honesty and consistency of character. As such, one may judge that others “have integrity” to the extent that they act according to the values, beliefs and principles they claim to hold.)

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Erik G Eitel

I agree with Henry’s and Andrew’s comments. I think that religion in the workplace SHOULD be accepted just as which college or university you attended is. It makes the individual who they are. However, I don’t think it should be done in a way that puts-down people or makes people feel excluded. And on the other hand, it can’t be done in a way that forces others to take part. All-in-all I think it’s best if a religious discussion is kept out of the work place. It’s like those three things that should never be dinner table topics… sex, religion, and politics.

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David B. Grinberg

As folks may or may not know, the White House issued specific Guidelines in 1997:

GUIDELINES ON RELIGIOUS EXERCISE AND RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION IN THE FEDERAL WORKPLACE.

It may also be helpful to consider the history of “Separation Between Church and State” — including U.S. Supreme Court decisions, to broaden the scope of this discussion.

Being secular, my personal view is that religious worship should be left for places of worship on one’s personal time, not places of work — especially in the federal workplace. Thus, if you are a public servant in any U.S. government agency, it may be best to focus more on your actual work and less on personal, private, and/or potentialy contentious issues of religion.

Thus, I say leave your religious views and opinions at the door when you enter a government workplace.

DBG

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Jennifer Bledsoe

I agree with most of the comments. We have constitutional rights to have freedom of speech/expression and religion. I want to understand why some feel we should forfeit those rights just because we work for the government. You should be able to practice your religious preference at work as long as it doesn’t infringe on anyone else.

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Lindsey Tepe

It seems to me that there is a significant difference between openly displaying your religious identity as opposed to openly discussing your religion. Reviewing the guidelines that David posted, it seems as though federal guidelines agree – they clearly differentiate between religious expression and religious exercise.

Open cultural and religious expression – wearing traditional clothing and ornaments, sharing cultural foods, and even explaining cultural norms – allows for greater cultural awareness and tolerance, and is considered appropriate (in most cases) within the workspace.

Discussing “what others believe, what they do, why and how” in terms of religious practices, however, is significantly different and subject to a much more nuanced set of rules. As a strong advocate and practitioner of common sense, I love nuance. As long as you are exercising some common sense when approaching these more sensitive areas of discussion, you should be fine.

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Dannielle Blumenthal

I just read the guidelines and think Lindsey captured the essence well. They are worth reading carefully. thanks to David for posting them.

Basically it seems that you can be yourself. But as one would expect – don’t push your beliefs onto others; don’t discriminate based on religion or the lack thereof; don’t turn workspace into religious space (although you use an empty room to pray together if you want; hang an inspirational verse over your desk, etc. – to Jennifer’s concern.) That sounds reasonable to me.

Probably also, be aware that religion is a trigger for people. As a matter of emotional intelligence, that’s a simple reality. Whatever is different is a subject of interest and conversation, whether good bad or indifferent. To my mind that’s why one is commonly advised to keep one’s personal views on these matters to oneself. (As Peter, Henry and David are saying.)

Other than when I’ve discussed it with friends at work, I have 3 recollections of religion coming up on a regular basis:

* The first was when I learned there was a weekly voluntary prayer group (Christian) that met in an empty room at one Agency. Discussing this group with a friend was how I learned about Joel Osteen’s inspirational work (an informal sample tells me that Jewish people universally watch his sermons).

* The second was in the context of the annual holiday party at one agency, which one year featured a lot of traditional Christmas decorations and made me a little uncomfortable even though there was a menorah somewhere that somebody found in a closet. I had to remind myself not to make a big deal of it and nobody really bothered me, but it was uncomfortable.

* The third was a celebration of Jewish Heritage Month, which was a big deal because at that agency it apparently hadn’t been celebrated for awhile. Of course the committee could not agree on the food and I volunteered to handle it. Which left us with a big delivery of traditional Sabbath food that showed up…frozen. It was like a standup comedy as the entire Executive Floor helped me warm it up on broil for 45 minutes, and then everybody absolutely loved it. (Cholent, kishke, etc.)

Not to minimize what people go through in terms of religious discrimination at work of course.

This statement by Andrew K. strikes me as important: “To ask someone to not share that part of themselves, in my opinion, is to ask them to act without integrity to some degree.”

I remember once having a conversation with a friend about Wiccan practices and how those would count in terms of religious observance. I think the point she was making was that there are many faiths, and they should be recognize, but at the same time isn’t it possible for people to abuse the concept so as to get away with things.

I still haven’t figured out with resolve whether Buddhism is a religion yet. That’s a whole other discussion. Like I said, I find this stuff very interesting.

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Colleen Ayers

Interesting discussion, but I wanted to respond specifically to David’s comment because it’s exacty the sort of thing that tends to get my back up. “Being secular, my personal view is that religious worship should be left for places of worship on one’s personal time, not places of work — especially in the federal workplace. Thus, if you are a public servant in any U.S. government agency, it may be best to focus more on your actual work and less on personal, private, and/or potentialy contentious issues of religion.”

The basic assumption with this is that religion is something you can “turn off”, that it’s not part of your identity and values. Not only do I think that’s faulty, but I also think it’s unfair to demand we “turn off” religion while so many other just-as-contentious issues are outright celebrated. Why should the above statement be any more acceptable than the below with substitutions?

  • Cultural expressions should be left for one’s personal time, not places of work.
  • Supporting your favorite sports team should be left for one’s personal time, not places of work.
  • Accomodating disabilities should be left for care by medical professionals on one’s personal time, not places of work.
  • (and the real contentious kicker) Sexual identity should be kept in the bedroom on one’s personal time, not places of work.

How is the argument to leave religion at home any less ridiculous than these? Furthermore, how is it even helpful to try and pretend like religion doesn’t exist for the 40-hours a week you’re at work? Maybe because I work in international affairs the issue comes up more often, but a lack of understanding about religions and the role they play in different societies means cutting out a huge piece of the puzzle, and greatly diminishes your chances of effectively engaging with your target audiences. I think it’s just as important to understand who your coworkers are and what is important to them.

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Avatar Image Dale M. Posthumus

Once again, it is about common sense, but regulating common sense is difficult. Personal expression of faith at work must be allowed within the parameters of “observe, share with those who are interested, don’t push onto those who do not want to hear”. The return is “observe, tolerate, respect, don’t demand absolutes”. Others may be able to add to these lists. Those of us who choose to make those personal expressions must also be cognizant of others who would have another opinion. Those who have another opinion must also be tolerant of a reasonable expression of aother’s faith.

This attitude of no religion outside of religious places stems from a misunderstanding of faith and religion. It is not just about gathering in a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, home, park, wherever, with like-minded people. It is not just about observing certain rites. It is not just about believing in certain things. For the vast majority of people of faith, it is about living one’s life according to that faith. My faith tells me I would be a hypocrite if I believed in compassion, but was not compassionate; if I believed in integrity, but was not honest; if I believed in pacifism, but was violent. Much like faith ruled the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Should he have left his faith inside a church?

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