More diversity, more religious conflict

Sep 16 2013 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Diversity is a fact of life in the American workplace. Half of American workers now come into contact with people from different cultural and religious backgrounds when they are at work, and with this increased rate of interaction comes an increased risk of religious conflict.

According to a survey of more than 2,000 American workers by the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, the most common areas of tension in the workplace include being required to work on a religious holiday or attending company events that didn't include kosher, halal or vegetarian meals.

"American workplaces increasingly reflect the makeup of the country; they're more and more diverse," said Tanenbaum CEO Joyce Dubensky. "Work is the place where people with extremely different beliefs interact on a regular basis. But where there's more diversity, the survey shows that we can expect to find more conflict."

However, as the report admits, issues of bias and discrimination are complex and nuanced. People interpret them differently and so perceptions of what discrimination means in day-to-day terms will always be reflections of personal perception rather than objective measurement.

But what can be measured are things like whether a company permits someone to take time off to observe a religiously significant day, whether they can find food that satisfies their religious requirements at company events or whether they are permitted to wear clothing that is religiously significant. Not permitting such practices was defined in the survey as a policy that did not accommodate the religious needs of employees.

Bearing that in mind, one thing that over half the respondents agreed on is that there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims in the US, while a third of those surveyed say they have either experienced or witnessed incidents of religious non-accommodation at work. Of non-Christians, half believe that their employers ignore their religious needs.

White evangelical Protestants emerged as having a unique attitude towards religion in the workplace, being twice as likely as other workers to want to share their beliefs with their colleagues. Six out of 10 also believe that discrimination against Christians is as big a problem as discrimination against other religious minorities, a far higher proportion than those belonging to other Christian denominations.

The potential for conflict here is clear because more than four out of 10 (43 per cent) atheist, agnostic and secular workers were somewhat or very uncomfortable when the subject of religion came up at work and almost a third of those who were religious but not Christian also felt uneasy about it.

Overall, some six out of 10 atheists believe that people look down on their beliefs, a perception shared by almost a third of non-Christian religious workers (31 per cent) and a similar proportion of white evangelical Protestants (32 per cent).

When it comes to non-accommodation of religious practice, many of the problems reported by respondents are less to do with religion per se than a more general inflexibility on the part of employers. For example, fewer than half of those surveyed said that their employer offered flexible working hours to enable them to accommodate religious observance, while only one in five (21 per cent) were able to "swap holidays" so that they could avoid working on days important to their religion.

This thoughtlessness is exacerbated, the report argues, because companies often fail to include religion in their diversity and inclusion initiatives, focusing instead on other identities such as race, gender, disability and sexual orientation.

Yet when companies adopt proactive policies that acknowledge and accommodate different religious and non-religious beliefs, employees reported improved morale and job satisfaction, clear evidence, the report says, that addressing religious diversity is good for business.

As the report states: "If there is one conclusion to take away from Tanenbaum's 2013 Survey of American Workers and Religion, it is that religion is relevant in the workplace. Not only is it a problem when a person feels unfairly treated on the basis of his or her beliefs Ė whether religious or non-religious Ė but tensions around religion are occurring, and are increasingly likely to occur, in our ever more diverse global workplaces."