Culture & Society

Religion Might Not Be Welcome

That quick prayer you say at work before eating lunch or wearing that skullcap around the office may not be as accepted by co-workers as you think.
By Keith Randall, Texas A&M Marketing & Communications April 6, 2010

That quick prayer you say at work before eating lunch or wearing that skullcap (yarmulke) around the office may not be as accepted by co-workers as you think – it might be producing negative results from co-workers, according to a study by a Texas A&M University researcher whose specialties include workplace and diversity issues.

George Cunningham, who heads the Laboratory for Diversity in Sport in the Department of Health and Kinesiology and specializes in workplace, gender and diversity issues, says workers who are religiously different from others in the workplace are likely to have poor experiences at work. This is particularly the case for persons whose religious beliefs are an important part of their identity, he contends.

The study is published in the current issue of Social Justice Research.

Bottom line: While the United States is a nation where freedom to worship is guaranteed, there are no guarantees that it won’t bother others and lead to potential problems and job dissatisfaction.

Some workers feel strongly that they have a moral or religious obligation to express or otherwise reflect and share their faith, sometimes so urged by their pastors or other religious leaders – but usually with advice that it be done in an unobtrusive manner.

“The study shows that if you think your religious beliefs make you a little bit ‘different’ at work, you’re probably right – they do make you different and you are less likely to ‘fit in’,” Cunningham explains.

“It also shows that the reverse can be true – when you are religiously similar to your colleagues, the more likely you are to fit into the workplace and be satisfied with your job.”

Cunningham collected job data from 260 managers across the U.S., with specific questions asked about religious beliefs, practices and policies in the workplace.

The results show that when religious beliefs are brought into a workplace setting, they can often impact the way people experience work, potentially even hurting their productivity. Examples might be wearing specific religious items of clothing, praying verbally where others are likely to hear it, even playing religious music in a confined area where co-workers can be affected.

While religious freedom is mandated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many offices in the U.S. don’t have established policies regarding religious issues. An exception is the U.S. military, which has recognized all religious faiths. In the past week, a 31-year-old Army officer who is a dentist was allowed to complete basic training at San Antonio’s Fort Sam Houston without sacrificing his faith values. He is permitted to serve with unshorn hair, as mandated by his Indian Sikh faith, and allowed to wear a full beard and a black turban. The Army offers waivers after considering the effects on safety and discipline, but only a handful of such exemptions have ever been granted.

Though the military has some guidelines for religious practices in the workplace, most office settings do not, Cunningham says.

“People tend to bring their religious beliefs to work with the assumption that everyone else has pretty similar belief systems, but that’s just not always the case,” he notes.

“We are now a country of multiple beliefs and multiple religions, and not all of them agree with each other. For example, if I am the only Buddhist at my work and I outwardly display my religious beliefs, I might not ‘fit in’ with others in the workplace, but most managers don’t seem to have a plan in place to deal with the situation.”

Cunningham adds, “Some clearly defined strategies and procedures need to be established, yet they almost never are. At the very least, managers and administrators need to be aware of the situation because there will almost certainly be some differences expressed. How does this impact others, and how does it affect job performance, and how should an office address this?,” he says.

“We are living in the most diverse times ever in America, and these are questions that are not going away.”

Media contact: Keith Randall, Texas A&M News & Information Services.

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