Here are three snapshots from recent problems in business related to religious expression. In one case, a major company brought in a speaker for some team training. This particular speaker emphasized key Hindu understandings of human nature and destiny. In another workplace, a supervisor sought to deny a Muslim worker a day off on Friday, thinking (in his words) that it was a "thank God it’s Friday" excuse. Finally, in yet another workplace, an employee sought to share her faith in Jesus Christ actively with co-workers during business hours.
Often, people think these sorts of problems are legal violations of privacy and some sort of separation between church and state-or, in these cases, business and state. To some extent, there are legal ramifications for proselytizing others about religious beliefs, and some companies’ personnel policies have all but banned such discussions on business hours or when the other party has asked not to discuss such matters off-hours.
Yet the issue of religious activity in the workplace is, fundamentally, an ethical one. The role of religion in business reflects the values of the owners, those who fund the business processes, and, to a limited extent, legal boundaries. There also is a larger, perhaps philosophical question: is religious belief and practice essentially a private matter or a public matter?
Let me state upfront on this issue that, in addition to serving as a management consultant for nearly 14 years, I’ve been ordained as an Episcopal priest for 24 years this year. So I speak as a person with deep religious commitment who also provides management assistance to businesses and organizations. I clearly see the intersection of religion and work life. I do understand that when people are at their best in business, they operate with a wonderful combination of excellent business sense and a clear set of values.
When business owners hold deep religious convictions that are expressed in business values, they generally can hire those who share those values. They don’t have to hire those in fundamental disagreement with those religious values. They can open and close their businesses as religious belief dictates, and they can promote religious activity such as studies of sacred texts or employee prayer. A potential or existing employee needs to determine whether such an environment is conducive to work. Private business employers can mandate that employees sign faith statements or values documents. Potential employees need to determine whether they really can work in such an environment. Notice I didn’t provide a label such as Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, pagan, or any other belief system.
Things change, however, when businesses and organizations receive public funding for elements of their work. Federal agency funding for employee training programs or state agency funding for road contracting may have clear protocols that religion can’t be promoted with this funding. Yet in social service and health care delivery programs at the federal agency level, there’s room for "faith-based organizations" in the nonprofit sector-and possibly in the for-profit business sector.
On a practical level, if religious belief is explicit, such as insistence on prayer as part of a purchase or inclusion of a religious tract with the receipt, a customer may choose not to return and may even lodge a complaint with business regulators or watchdog organizations. Business owners need to determine the extent to which they wish to promote religion.
Legal boundaries come into focus when religion is linked to harassment or fairness. For example, if a manager wants to bring Hindu-oriented team trainers into a workplace, he or she may meet resistance from some employees with opposing religious views-or none at all-who are offended at having to conform to a dominant religious practice. The issue becomes even more complex and risky when participation in such exercises becomes a condition for receiving increased compensation or, worse, promotion or even continued employment.
In the end, the basic question remains: In a diverse community and culture, is the active practice and presence of religion in the workplace really ethical? Some could argue that secular practices are a form of religious belief since they’re rooted in an ethical understanding. In the end, to impose one’s religious belief as a condition of doing business is utterly unethical. Why? Because world religions, at their core, are systems and methods of sharing love, caring, and support for human enterprise.
At the same time, if the business itself is based on a values system that promotes religious activity, the owners and managers need to be prepared to ask whether an employee can work under such conditions-and turn down financial support, especially from units of government-and be willing to pay the price.
Yet, in the end, isn’t paying the price rather than making the profit what religious practice ultimately is all about? IBI