Most Americans pray for their co-workers. But the company? Not so much
A new survey report from Deseret News and The Marist Poll focuses on the relationship between religion and business
As companies across the country launch initiatives aimed at reducing sexism, racism and a host of other “isms” in the office, religion experts worry that business leaders are failing to root out discrimination based on faith.
“Workplaces assume religion is not a relevant piece of (diversity, equity and inclusion) initiatives,” said Elaine Howard Ecklund, professor of sociology and director of the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University.
In reality, surveys have shown that many Americans want to be able to talk about their faith at work and that some even see their career as a spiritual calling. More than one-third of U.S. adults (37%) say religion played at least a minor role in their choice of where to work, according to the Faith in America survey from Deseret News and The Marist Poll.
That poll also found that 32% of Americans base most of their business decisions on their religious beliefs. The survey was fielded in January among 1,653 adults. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
Despite findings like these, few business leaders think about religion when they consider how to make their company a more open, welcoming place. That oversight leads them to miss opportunities to improve their office and society as a whole, said Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith America.
“When businesses positively engage with religious diversity, it’s good for society, good for inclusiveness and good for the bottom line,” he said.
Patel noted that positive engagement with religion can come in many forms. Company leaders can focus on the needs of their employees by creating faith-based employee resource groups or being mindful of religion-related dietary needs when they order in lunch. They can focus on the needs of customers by creating religiously inspired product lines. Ideally, businesses will pay attention to multiple needs at once, Patel said.
“According to a PRRI survey, the business world is where most Americans encounter religious diversity first. That creates a wonderful opportunity for American companies to pay positive attention to religious diversity,” he said.
To be clear, business leaders should be careful not to overstep professional boundaries as they work to welcome people of faith, experts said. They shouldn’t privilege members of one religion over others or try to act as both a spiritual counselor and boss.
A good starting point for companies that haven’t done much with religious diversity in the past might be to learn more about religious discrimination and the challenges that people of faith can face at work. Recent research from Ecklund’s organization showed that Christians, Jews and Muslims experience discrimination differently.
Muslims and Jews often feel like they’re being treated as “foreign or exotic” and suffering due to the negative associations people have with their faith groups as a whole, Religion News Service noted in its write-up of the Rice report. Evangelical Christians, on the other hand, feel like they’re mocked for their individual moral views.
As they work to create more welcoming environments, company leaders can also seek to understand how Americans see the relationship between their faith and their work. The Deseret-Marist poll — and other surveys before it — highlighted a number of ways that people’s religious lives and professional lives intertwine.
For example, the Faith in America survey showed that 7 in 10 U.S. adults have prayed for a work colleague. However, just 37% have prayed for their business or company.
That poll also found that it’s uncommon for Americans to look to coworkers for moral guidance. Fewer than one-third of U.S. adults said it was “very likely” or “likely” for them to turn to a boss or work colleague for advice on living a moral life, according to the Deseret-Marist poll.
Finally, the survey revealed that more than 8 in 10 Americans, including 82% of those who do not practice a religion, feel comfortable with their coworkers knowing their religious beliefs.
Although this last finding may seem like great news for anyone working to boost support for religious diversity in the workplace, Ecklund cautioned that context matters. For example, it will almost always be easier for someone who is part of a dominant religious group to talk about faith than someone in a minority group.
“People in occupations where they suspect other people have religious beliefs like them are most likely to feel comfortable having other people know their religious beliefs,” she said.
Ecklund, who is also the Herbert S. Autrey Chair of Social Sciences at Rice, added that successful diversity efforts take a range of factors, including occupation type and geographic region, into account.
“Occupation type is extremely important when thinking about religion in the workplace,” she said.