By Mark E. Fowler, Managing Director of Programs, Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding
Many people think that religion is not something that "happens" in the workplace. But they are wrong.
One-third of American workers—from evangelical Christians to atheists—have experienced or witnessed religious bias while on the job, according to a new report from the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding and Public Religion Research, LLC.
The study, "What American Workers Really Think About Religion: Tanenbaum's 2013 Survey of American Workers and Religion," polled a representative sample of more than 2,000 American workers about their experiences with religious discrimination at work and in society at large.
According to the survey, three groups of American workers—religious minorities, white evangelical Protestants, and atheists—are the most likely to experience religious bias at work.
The survey also examined how certain policies, or lack thereof, impact job satisfaction and retention. For example, the survey found that workers at companies with clear processes for handling their complaints were more likely to be happy and planned to stay at their jobs. When companies lacked such clear processes, employees were nearly twice as likely as their counterparts to be looking for a new job where they would be happier—41 percent vs. 22 percent.
The most common concerns about religious bias involved being required to work on Sabbath observances or a religious holiday (24 percent) and the marginalization that occurs when someone attends a company-sponsored event that doesn't include kosher, halal or vegetarian options (13 percent).
"Corporate executives are often hesitant to tackle the issue of religion. They're concerned that it's too nuanced or sensitive an issue to incorporate into the company's diversity initiatives," notes Joyce S. Dubensky, Tanenbaum's CEO. "But that perspective only results in ducking the inevitable. Religion is an issue in workplaces. The trick is to manage it so it works for your advantage."
The survey found that less than half of all workers report that their companies have the following key policies and programs related to religious diversity, even though Tanenbaum says these policies improve morale and productivity:
- flexible work hours to permit religious observance or prayer (44 percent);
- a policy to allow employees to "swap holidays" (21 percent), e.g., allowing employees to work on Christmas and take time off for Diwali instead;
- programs to teach employees about religious diversity (14 percent).
"The sheer number of workers reporting incidents of religious bias at work proves that religion deserves executives' attention. And our survey identified the low-hanging fruit," says Dubensky. "For instance, if executives encouraged employees to accommodate their colleagues' religious dietary restrictions when planning events, reports of religious bias could dramatically drop while job satisfaction would likely increase. Taking that first step can make a world of difference for companies looking to get ahead of the curve."