Religion: The Unspoken Word in Business – March 2021

Much of the recent research into how healthy workplaces operate reveal that when employees feel respected for who they are as human beings—not just positions within the company—they are more productive and stay with their employer longer—often turning down better opportunities. Some have mistakenly attributed this shift in workplace expectations to Generations X and Z, with their focus on social conscience, equality, and inclusion, but the truth is, every human being, regardless of age, performs better when their personal values are respected. The reason is simple, people don’t choose their work based solely on the work itself. They choose a career because it supports their values. People need a reason to get up every morning and go to work, and that reason is rarely because they want to complete a work-related task.

Given this fact, it is not only unfortunate that many business leaders know too little about the lives of their staff, it is counterproductive. Working groups that are more familiar with other team member’s personal lives display higher levels of trust, resolve work issues more quickly, and produce more ideas than teams who simply work together. Recently, I was working with a company to establish more deep-seated relationships when one employee said, “The managers at our company are so afraid of employees getting into arguments that we are not allowed to discuss politics, religion, sexual orientation, or any controversial social issues.” When I asked why, they said that arguments had broken out in the past, so the managers decided it would be easiest to just keep workplace conversations focused only on work, going to far as to discipline employees for discussing issues not approved of in the employee manual.

It was, of course, a simple fix. But the result was low morale and a life-less work environment. The company also had a higher-than-average turn-over rate. When I asked the employee what was most important in her life, she said, “My faith. I am a very religious person.” When I asked if she ever spoke about her religion at work, the entire group became visibly uncomfortable. Here was the most important facet of this woman’s life, and she had to check it at the door every morning. Faith, spirituality, religion, or personal moral codes are easily the important driving force in human life. Rarely does someone engage in an act of any kind without thinking about the right or wrong behind it. Faith and religion are certainly not the basis for most businesses, but to ignore its impact on your workforce is to turn a blind eye to a major driver of human behavior.

According to the Pew Research Center 46.6% of Americans consider themselves Protestant Christians, 20.8% are Catholics, with smaller percentages of other Christian denominations. America is also home to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Sikhs, Shinto, Jains, Indigenous, Atheists, Agnostics, and those who have spiritual beliefs, but are unaffiliated with any organized religion. Even though some people wear their faith on their sleeve, while others keep it to themselves, not to acknowledge that these beliefs affect working relationships, decision-making, and ethics is a mistake.

Many business leaders avoid discussing religion in the workplace because they fear offending those of different beliefs, but that is a narrow view of the place faith holds in people’s lives. Some people are afraid of asking about the Bat Mitzvah of a fellow employee’s daughter because there might be an Atheist present. Do you really think the Atheist is unaware of the existence of Judaism? People are not insulted by the fact that people hold differing beliefs, they simply want their own beliefs respected. Yes, there are religious beliefs that stand in direct opposition of other religions. And sometimes discord has led to distrust, or even violence. But those instances represent a minority. The majority of people are capable of accepting diverse views on faith. Silence is far more damaging than respectful disagreement.

The challenge for business leaders is how to foster a workplace where employees’ faith, or non-faith, can be welcomed and supported. As with all things, a good leader sets the tone. Asking others about their beliefs, sharing your own viewpoint, and honoring others’ beliefs sends a message that open conversation is not only safe at work, but an important part of having people work side-by-side every day.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

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