Skip to main content
Friday, February 7, 2014 - 3:35am

WORKING: Faith At Work Is Dead?

Updated: 10 months ago.
Religious issues in workplaces have been popping up in the news in recent months, prompting questions about how much faith employees can practice at work. Workplace consultant Brandon Smith said religious discrimination claims are rising in the United States—doubling over the last 15 years. (Photo Courtesy of Esther Seijmonsbergen via stock.xchng.)

Religious issues in workplaces have been popping up in the news in recent months, prompting questions about how much faith employees can practice at work.

A judge ruled in favor of a Sikh man late last year after a car dealership wouldn’t hire him because he has a beard. Another judge said a business owner couldn’t lecture an employee about the owner’s religious beliefs.

Workplace consultant Brandon Smith said religious discrimination claims are rising in the United States—doubling over the last 15 years, though they continue to be a small slice of overall workplace discrimination issues.

Part of that is the diversification of our society, said Smith, who also teaches about workplace culture, leadership and communication at Emory and Georgia State universities..

“You’ve got people from around the globe coming into the workplace with their cultures, with their religions, with their faith, with their practices,” he said.

The other part is the invisibility of that diversity.

“The other categories of discrimination—things like sex, age, race, disability—those are, for the most part, obvious. You can see it,” Smith said. “But when you talk about religion, it’s not as obvious as some of the others. So people are stepping on other people’s toes without understanding that there could be some differences there.”

Smith said faith is OK in the office.

As a general guideline: “We can practice—and it’s OK to practice—our faith at work, but it’s not OK to necessarily preach our faith to others,” Smith said.

He said it is also acceptable for a worker to ask for special accommodations from the boss to stay true to his or her religion. That may include accommodations for:
- religious holidays
- space at work to pray or meditate
- attire required by the religion

“You can also ask for accommodations if you don’t want to be associated with a particular product that the company or employer works on or with because it’s a violation of your religious beliefs,” Smith said.

He pointed to the case of a Muslim truck driver who sued in 2010 after he was forced to resign because he did not want to transport loads that included alcohol and tobacco. The driver and the company quickly settled the case. But Smith said the key is how “reasonable” it is for an employer to handle such a request.

“As long as the employer has other products available for them to deliver, that’s a reasonable accommodation,” Smith said.

The burden for communicating religious issues falls on the employee, Smith said. And the earlier, the better.

“The goes back to something I’m so passionate about: clear communication. Be honest. Have the up-front conversation,” he said. “If you have it up front and you clarify expectations, the probability of dysfunction coming into play is very low. But when you don’t say anything and set people up to guess, guess what? They’re going to guess wrong, you’re going to be upset and bad stuff happens.”

Smith said religious discrimination claims are rising in the United States—doubling over the last 15 years, though they continue to be a small slice of overall workplace discrimination issues.

Part of that is the diversification of our society, Smith said.

“You’ve got people from around the globe coming into the workplace with their cultures, with their religions, with their faith, with their practices,” he said.

The other part is the invisibility of that diversity.

“The other categories of discrimination—things like sex, age, race, disability—those are, for the most part, obvious. You can see it,” Smith said. “But when you talk about religion, it’s not as obvious as some of the others. So people are stepping on other people’s toes without understanding that there could be some differences there.”

Related Articles