Is God “Out of Office”?: Exploring Faith in the Workplace

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My graduate education in both theology and human resource development has inspired me to explore the intersection of faith and the workplace. While there is a decline in the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian and an expansion of those that are not affiliated with any religion at all, according to the Pew Research Center, there is an increase in representation among other faiths. Among those who are unaffiliated (almost 23 percent of the population), about 3 percent identify as atheist, 4 percent as agnostic, and almost 16 percent are nothing in particular. While the most current Pew religious study does not probe into the distinction between religion and spirituality, there are certainly many agnostic individuals and those who do not identify with a religion that still consider themselves to be spiritual in a more general sense.

There continues to be a need for people to find both solace and inspiration in a connection to God or Allah, Dharma and our higher selves.

The massive coverage of Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United States and the exuberant reactions he received from the multitudes is further evidence that faith and spirituality is alive and well in the United States. Despite the fact that the American Catholic population is decreasing, there is still a widespread reverence for the Pope that transcends Christian denominations and even religions. In a world where terrorism abroad and gun violence at home looms large and economic insecurity and inequity festers uncontrollably, there continues to be a need for people to find both solace and inspiration in a connection to God or Allah, dharma and our higher selves, which President Abraham Lincoln famously called the the “better angels of our nature.”

Uncovering Religion at Work
Religion and spirituality continues to be an integral part of most of our lives, even if we do not attend a church, synagogue, mosque or temple every week or at all. However, when it comes to the area where we tend to spend the majority of our working hours there seems to be a separation of faith and workplace. Knowledge@Wharton cites a study from the Journal of Organizational Behavior that demonstrates that the pressure to conform and reduce self-expression by Christians in the United States and South Korea led to negative outcomes, such as increased turnover intentions and a decrease in job satisfaction and well-being.

Religion can be an important aspect of our authentic selves.

Deloitte has done extensive research around the negative impact “covering” can have on employee engagement and inclusion. Covering refers to the process of hiding certain aspects of our authentic selves and differences to feel more accepted and be more respected at work or in other contexts. An example is Muslim women who are discouraged or restricted from wearing a hijab in the workplace. Religion, among other identities, such as race or ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, can be an important aspect of our authentic selves. Suppression or one or more of those identities can have a psychological toll that undermines our ability to perform at the highest level.

Faith-Based Resource Groups
Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) or Business Resource Groups (BRGs) are have received significant traction in large companies over the years as a way to foster connection, professional development and greater business impact among those with shared identities, as well as for those who want to learn more about colleagues from different backgrounds. According to Tanenbaum’s report on Faith-Based Employee Resource Groups there are three primary resource groups that companies can establish around faith and spirituality. American Express is a company that has taken the religion-specific approach, with ERGs for Jewish, Muslim and Christian employees. Merck & Co. leverages interfaith resource groups through the Merck Interfaith Organization (MIO) Employee Resource Business Group (EBRG) which is “a community of faith for Merck employees from all spiritual paths and backgrounds.” The Ford Interfaith Network is an umbrella organization for religion-specific ERGs and informal, religious groups and encourages interfaith dialogue among its members.

As someone who has facilitated interreligious community conversations, I am partial to the interfaith network model. Oprah Winfrey’s new seven-part series, “Belief,” celebrates the beauty of religious pluralism and explores the shared human desire to connect to something greater than ourselves. A mutual understanding and respect for diverse beliefs is the best way to transform religion from a wall of division and conflict into a bridge for harmony and collaboration.

The ultimate purpose for any religion should be to help make us better human beings.

If religious and spiritual people want to experience a better integration of faith and work without generating friction, it is necessary to focus on the the common values and ethics that can be found virtually all religions. We do not need formal resource groups in order to live out the highest ideals of our faith traditions in the workplace. Various expressions of the “Golden Rule” can be found across religions. The Judeo-Christian version of this universal ethic is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We can translate this instruction for the work environment by saying “Love your coworker as yourself.” The ultimate purpose for any religion that is worthy of adherence must be to help make us better human beings, who can relate to others in a compassionate and constructive manner. If our faith does not accomplish this goal, it is better to leave it “out of office.”