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Religion in the Workplace: Steps toward Inclusion

Religion has always played a prominent role in American life. So, it should come as no surprise that discussions of religion sometimes happen in the workplace. Religion in the workplace can present concerns for employers and employees. To be certain, a variety of laws protect the right of all U.S. citizens to practice any religion of their choosing – or no religion at all – without government interference. However, to be truly inclusive, a workplace must go beyond the minimum requirements set by law. Leaders must create a workplace where employees of all faiths feel welcomed.

Religion in the Workplace: Statistics

The United States hosts a variety of faiths. According to the Pew Research Center, roughly 50 percent of U.S. citizens are Protestant Christians, while around 20 percent are Catholic. Therefore, just over 70 percent of those in the U.S. are Christian.

Though a clear majority of the U.S. population practices Christianity, the non-Christian population is growing rapidly. The number of Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist Americans has jumped over the past few decades. Moreover, according to some research, members of these religions are younger than the general population.  Therefore, in the future, an even higher share of U.S. citizens will practice something other than Christianity.

Further, not only are many people in the U.S. choosing non-Christian religions, some are choosing no religion at all. Indeed, according to Pew, the fastest growing religion in the U.S. is “none.” Pew found that the number of Atheists, Agnostics, or those choosing “nothing in particular” rose five percentage points in just five years. Clearly, the religious landscape in the U.S. is anything but static.

Why Leaders Should Consider Religion in the Workplace

One would hope that a strong commitment to inclusion would be enough to convince most leaders to adopt a warm attitude toward religion in the workplace. However, for those that remain unconvinced, there are several other factors to consider.

A hostile attitude toward religion can complicate recruitment and retention. According to The Guardian, employees are more likely to leave companies without clearly stated religious discrimination policies. The same article noted that workers at companies that did not accommodate religious observances were two times more likely to be dissatisfied with their jobs than those at companies with more flexible policies.

In addition to retention, a failure to accommodate religion in the workplace can lead to lawsuits. Some employees have harassed others by constantly evangelizing at work. Bosses have refused to promote employees. Interviewers have told applicants that their “look” made them unfit for a position. These bad behaviors, all tied to religious discrimination, resulted in EEOC complaints and lawsuits for the companies involved.

Whether it’s the financial loss associated with lawsuits and lost employees or the damage to reputation, operating a religiously hostile workplace can be costly.

Religion and Inclusion: What Companies Can Do

Religion can be a touchy subject for many. Nevertheless, leaders should develop clear guidelines for dealing with issues of religion in the workplace. Here are a few things leaders can do to promote an inclusive work environment for employees of all beliefs.

  • Don’t ban all talk of religion. Because religion can be a sensitive topic, some leaders may be inclined to ban all talk of religion in the workplace. While the impulse is understandable, it is counterproductive for several reasons. First, if religion is a part of an employee’s life, preventing her from discussing that part of her life will not make her feel included. Second, some employees wear specific headgear or other items that identify them as members of a particular religion and culture. Those employees may feel like they cannot fully be themselves in such an environment. Finally, employees often learn from one another. Scrubbing the workplace of religion not only makes employees uncomfortable, it deprives them of a valuable learning tool: each other. So, within reason, as long as they are not harassing or evangelizing, employees should be allowed to discuss their beliefs.
  • Consider your culture. As previously noted on this blog, every organization has a specific culture. Even when a company is complying with its legal obligations, it may be supporting a culture that makes members of certain religions uncomfortable. For example, a company’s dress code might require men to be clean-shaven. Leaders should consider granting exemptions to the policy if asked. Or, leaders should reconsider the policy to determine if it is still necessary. Similarly, a company that frequently requires employees to attend social events after hours or on weekends should consider how these choices impact employees who may have religious obligations during those events.
  • Accommodate all religious practices and observances. In an inclusive environment, no one religion should be treated as more important than the others. Therefore, in an inclusive workplace, holidays from all religions should be treated similarly. Some companies have created cultural calendars that mark important dates, observances, and holidays from a variety of religions and cultures. Leaders should review their leave policies regularly to ensure that employees are not forced to choose between work and religion.
  • Get creative. Some leaders and employees have found creative solutions to accommodate religious practices. Some companies allow employees to work remotely when they cannot travel to the office. Others allow employees who must leave at sundown to come to work early. Some offices have “quiet rooms.” These rooms provide employees with a place to rest, nap, mediate, or pray during the workday. When teams get creative, even the thorniest problems can be solved.

Religion in the workplace poses challenges, but also provides opportunities for coworkers to develop a better understanding of one another. When inclusive values lead the way, religion need not be an obstacle. If your team needs help with equity, diversity, inclusion, or other concepts, please consider enrolling in The Equity Toolkit. This progressive course will give your team the tools it needs to address religion, race, gender, and other areas of diversity in the workplace.

DeEtta Jones

DeEtta Jones is an invited speaker, equity, diversity and inclusion strategy consultant and author with more than twenty years of experience working with people from around the world to on personal effectiveness and building workforce capacity.

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