God’s work? The battle of religious beliefs in the office

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What do you expect from your employer this Easter? A chocolate egg? A big slice of Simnel cake? A little free time? An invitation to attend a Christian religious service? Or nothing at all, because you don’t find Easter meaningful and prefer your workplace to be entirely secular?

Managerial responses to the cultural complexity of religious diversity range from following highly structured legal guidelines to informal acceptance of contemporary pluralism by working around the beliefs of staff. There are legal frameworks in most countries to protect or exclude religious beliefs from workplaces. But the way these are worked out in practice creates considerable controversy. And when we consider religious belief alongside sexual orientation or ethnicity, then we’re almost certain to disagree.

So what if you have to follow a specific belief system at work? If you are an Anglican priest, you should have no problem believing in God as part of the working relationship. Is it reasonable, however, for secular companies to legally impose religious beliefs on workers? What if the managers or owners of an organization expect you to refuse to provide services to certain people because, from a specific religious point of view, their sexualities are somehow wrong?

Protestant work ethic

Removing religion from the workplace is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Classical sociologist Max Weber was not the first to note the tremendous influence that religious belief can have on work and workplaces in the early 1900s. However, it opened up a heated debate, which continues more a hundred years later.

Max Weber believed that capitalism was linked to Protestantism.

Weber’s thesis was superficially simple – that Protestantism strongly influenced the development of capitalism in Western Europe and North America. Weber argued that it was especially clear in Calvinist doctrine to do work to the glory of God, combined with exhortations to live frugally. The combination of rational hard work and withholding wages or profits resulted in income that could be invested in more productive businesses – hence growth-based capitalism.

Through Weber’s seminal work, religion explains the most important economic change in modernity, in an intuitively appealing way. It can be used to explain the lingering conundrum of why some people work harder than others, how some people accumulate more wealth, and why different parts of the world have developed economically at different times.

Weber’s argument, data, and conclusions have all been challenged on several occasions. Nonetheless, the notion of a religious work ethic is still with us in various forms – not necessarily Christian or backed by religion. North American business school researchers offer a contemporary form when they argue that promoting spirituality in the workplace can lead to higher productivity or more ethical leadership.

Equality and religion

Do we expect that from employers, however – to be guided as to what we should believe in the world in such a fundamental way, to be seen as a better employee? This focus led Josiah Wedgwood to encourage potters to convert to Methodism so that he could count on them to show up for work sober Monday mornings and stay until the end of the day, helping to mechanize a production process that had been based on rule of thumb and the need to work.

Industrialist William Lever appointed a flexible Anglican vicar to preach the virtues of obedience to managers in his town’s only purpose-built church in Port Sunlight. More recently, the directors of Tyson Foods and Walmart have encouraged employees to honor God, as a core value of the company. Is this what we are looking for at work?

Of course, all organizations generate a culture – of which religious belief will inevitably be a part. More disciplinary or “strong” cultures were the preferred option of managers for some time, as they were said to encourage compliance that would be helpful to the discipline. But trends towards diversity and inclusion in the workplace have challenged the idea of ​​a monoculture that creates somewhat robotic employees, often of one ethnic type or gender.

However, a recent increase in legislation is forcing business owners and managers to address the issue of religion in the workplace. The EU-inspired UK Equality Act 2010 brought together a series of smaller workplace-related pieces of legislation, such as the Sexual Orientation and Religious Beliefs Act 2003, to provide guidance consistent rules on equal treatment against discrimination in most areas of employment. . But the quarrels continue.

Controversy to follow

It is already clear from the case law that religion is probably the most controversial aspect of promoting equality, both in employment and in the provision of services. Something as mundane as ordering a decorated cake can create new case law. A bakery in Northern Ireland has been accused of discriminating against a homosexual for refusing to bake a “gay cake” on religious grounds – judgment is currently reserved, but it is certain that some will be unhappy with it. whatever the outcome.

Apple CEO raises his hand for equality at work.
EPA / Monica Davey

Meanwhile, in the United States, a series of states are trying to legislate in favor of discrimination against LGBT people, if a religious freedom argument is made. This led to a somewhat incongruous statement from Asda owner Walmart in favor of diversity, opposing the debated religious freedom bill. Let’s not forget that this Walmart is one of the most prominent organizations on Corporate Watch, especially for systematic racial and gender discrimination.

More convincingly, Apple’s Tim Cook has started speaking out publicly on this issue, on his own behalf and with the power of Apple behind him.

Religious belief (or lack thereof – the neo-atheist movement can be as dogmatic and doctrinaire as the more disciplinary of religions) continues to occupy a particularly controversial position in societies around the world. Opponents claim that this causes conflict and social inequality; believers claim that life without it is limited and meaningless. Both claim freedom of expression and the need to break free from the beliefs of others.

Meanwhile, the workplace is a key site for the expression and coercion of religion – as an individual and as a vehicle for expressing corporate identity. As the legal system is challenged and overhauled, we can expect many more individual controversies and corporate interventions.


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