Over the course of his 37-year career with Texas Instruments, Kent Johnson developed a passion for helping people discuss their faith at work.

He started Bible studies, prayer groups and other religion-related activities, all the while being careful not to privilege certain voices over others.

“I saw the positive effects. ... People began to relate to one another more profoundly, to care about one another in different ways,” he said.

But Johnson, who recently retired from his position as senior legal counsel, also saw the same issue arise again and again: When his co-workers were first presented with opportunities to talk about their faith, they’d often respond with fear.

“People were afraid they were going to be opening the door to judgment,” he said.

A new poll conducted by HarrisX for the Deseret News on religion and business shows that Johnson’s experience is far from unique.

Although the survey found American workers are generally supportive of efforts to help religious employees bring their “whole selves” to the office, nearly 4 in 10 people of faith (38%) said they’d kept their religion secret at work at some point, including more than half (54%) of top leaders, who are referred to in the survey as “business decision-makers.”

Two of the most common explanations given for this secrecy were concerns about “possible tension with colleagues” and “social exclusion.”

Johnson and others who have worked on faith-related business initiatives said it makes sense to be a little nervous since there are many ways in which workplace discussions on religion can go wrong. But they remain confident that the risk is worth the reward.

“When people feel like they can be their authentic selves at work, companies perform the best and cultures are the strongest. Retention is better and people feel better,” said Simran Jeet Singh, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Religion and Society Program.

Contradictory ideas about religion and business

The new Deseret News/HarrisX poll explored a wide range of issues at the intersection of religion and business, from Americans’ thoughts on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives to their perception of their company’s religious makeup.

One of the key takeaways was that there’s a tension between people’s ideas about religion’s role in the workplace and their actual behavior. Some respondents seemed to contradict themselves as they moved from one question to the next.

For example, although more than 7 in 10 American workers (72%) agreed that “people of faith feel they can show up, as their whole self, at work,” around 4 in 10 (39%) said that employees worry about “repercussions” for sharing their religious identity.

The poll was conducted online from Oct. 6-11, among 1,002 U.S. adults. The margin of error for the full sample is 3.1 percentage points.

Another notable finding was that business decision-makers are often much more supportive of religion-related programming in the workplace than regular workers.

Eighty percent of leaders said it’s “good for company culture” to encourage employees to be open about their faith, compared to 54% of non-leaders. Three-quarters of business decision-makers said discussions about religious beliefs make workers happier, compared to 48% of regular workers.

The good news about these findings is that boosting religious freedom in the workplace is only possible with the buy-in of top leaders, said Kent Johnson, who is now senior corporate adviser for the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation. Bosses have to set the tone and make it clear that faith doesn’t need to be a taboo subject at work.

“It makes a big difference when a manager says, ‘Whatever faith you are, you’re welcome here, and, in fact, we want to know more about you if you’re willing to share,’” he said.

The new survey bears out Johnson’s conclusion. It found that workers are more comfortable sharing their beliefs if a manager or, especially, a senior leader shares theirs.

However, there is a downside to the significant gap between the views of business decision-makers and other workers: It raises the odds that official faith-related programming will be met with a chilly reception.

Bosses need to be sure they allow workers to take the lead in some cases and feel ownership over the company’s goal to become more faith-friendly, Johnson said.

“It can’t be just coming from the top down. It also has to come from the bottom up. If company leaders simply announce, ‘We’re going to be faith-friendly,’ people will remain nervous,” he said.

An uncomfortable — but worthy — journey

Singh agreed that employers and other leaders have to be careful not to pressure workers into participating in something they’re not comfortable with. Sadly, religious minorities are often mistreated as companies attempt to be more welcoming, he said.

“There’s this basic assumption that they’d obviously want to be part of the new programming when that’s not necessarily the case. It’s not necessarily true that someone wants to be part of a (faith-based) employee resource group just because they’re visibly religious,” said Singh, who is also the author of “The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life.”

It’s also not a given that nonreligious workers will want no part in faith-based programming, although the survey did show that nonreligious respondents were less supportive of employer-led conversations about religion than others.

In general, office leaders shouldn’t compel anyone to participate — while also not purposefully leaving anyone out, Johnson said.

“The idea is to give people the option and say, ‘We would love to learn more about you and we want those who are willing to talk about their faith.’ ... When you create that kind of environment, people open up,” he said.

Positive changes won’t be immediate, but they will be worth all the struggles and awkward moments, Singh said.

“At the end of the day, everyone will be better off, whether you’re in the religious majority or minority or not religious at all, in a culture where everyone can be themselves and be there for one another regardless of what they believe,” he said.