Tanenbaum's 2013 Survey "Religious Discrimination in American Workplaces". Photo courtesy Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding

Religious diversity is increasing at the office, and so are pitfalls

(RNS) The American workplace, like the rest of U.S. society, is becoming more religiously diverse and that is raising concerns about employer accommodations for believers -- and increasing the odds for uncomfortable moments around the water cooler.

Tanenbaum's 2013 Survey "Religious Discrimination in American Workplaces". Photo courtesy Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding

Tanenbaum's 2013 survey on "Religious Discrimination in American Workplaces." Photo courtesy Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Yet one potential flashpoint among workers does not involve new immigrant faiths but rather two indigenous communities: white evangelicals and unaffiliated Americans who constitute one of the fastest-growing segments of the population.

A major factor contributing to workplace conflict, according to a survey released on Friday (Aug. 30), is that evangelicals -- whose religious identity is tied to sharing their beliefs -- are much more likely to talk about their faith at work than other religious and nonreligious groups.

In fact, half of white evangelical Protestants said they share their beliefs with co-workers, compared to 22 percent of workers overall, according to the 2013 Survey of American Workers and Religion, sponsored by the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.

And one-third of evangelicals said they discuss religion frequently, compared to 14 percent of non-Christian believers, 10 percent of Catholics and 7 percent of white mainline Protestants. Moreover, nearly 9-in-10 white evangelical employees say they are somewhat or very comfortable when the issue of religion comes up in the workplace.

Conversely, the research found that nonbelievers are reticent to discuss religion and 43 percent of them say they feel somewhat or very uncomfortable when the topic comes up.

“This suggests the potential for workplace clashes between atheists and evangelical Protestants,” the report says.

The survey, released for Labor Day, was conducted in March and April by the Public Religion Research Institute, which questioned more than 2,000 American adults in both English and Spanish. The poll has a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.

Given the findings, it is perhaps not surprising that both nonbelievers and evangelicals shared a heightened sense of bias: Nearly 6-in-10 atheists said they think people look down on their beliefs, and nearly 6-in-10 of white evangelicals agreed that discrimination against Christians has become as big a problem as discrimination against other religious minorities.

“There’s a clear sense in the data, especially among white evangelicals, that other workers’ needs are being taken care of and theirs are not,” said Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute.

Jones added that along with their growing numbers, the “nones” are also increasingly confident in proclaiming their lack of religious affiliation, which in turn contributes to the potential for workplace interactions -- and conflicts -- over religion.

David Sikkink, a sociologist of religion at the University of Notre Dame who reviewed the report, also noted that while most believers -- as well as nonbelievers -- don’t look to the office as a place to find meaning and direction in their lives, evangelicals often take the opposite view and see the workplace as a venue for living out their religious identity.

“Evangelicals want to be different somehow, to take a stand, and to show that God is working in their lives through them,” Sikkink said.

Conversations about religion at work. Photo courtesy Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding

Conversations about religion at work. Photo courtesy Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

He said that does not always mean sharing the specifics of their faith, but can instead be demonstrated by the way evangelicals deal with workplace problems, or simply in their focus on developing friendships with their co-workers. Still, the endpoint of such relationships is a conversation about faith, “and eventually that may rub the nonreligious the wrong way.”

Overall, the incidence of workplace conflicts and discrimination over religion seems to be a fairly significant issue, according to the survey, with one-third of respondents reporting that they have seen or experienced incidents of religious bias in the workplace.

The most frequently cited problems were not interactions with co-workers but instead related to a failure of companies to provide sufficient accommodations for believers, especially non-Christians. Half of those respondents said that their employers are ignoring their religious needs.

Among the other findings:

  • Nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of the respondents reported being required to work on the Sabbath or a religious holiday and 13 percent said they attended company-sponsored events that did not include kosher, halal, or vegetarian options;
  • Less than half (44 percent) of workers said their employers had flexible work hours to permit religious observances or prayer and 21 percent said their company had a policy allowing employees to swap holidays to accommodate religious observances;
  • Four in 10 workers said their company had materials explaining their policy on religious discrimination, and 14 percent said their employer had programs to teach workers about religious diversity.

On the other hand, while the Tanenbaum report says that American companies need to do more to accommodate religious believers, it also found strong incentives for businesses to adapt: The survey showed that employees at companies that were sensitive to religious needs reported better morale and were much less likely to look for another job.

“With a growing number of nonreligious workers and a growing number of workers who are not Jewish or Christian, many employers are just figuring out how to navigate these waters,” said Jones.



  1. Once again Mr. Gibson, not only a well written article, but one that focuses on real world issues. I am one of those “unaffiliated Americans”, and I certainly understand first hand why “nonbelievers are reticent to discuss religion’ not only in the workplace, but just about anywhere else.

    A deep negative connotation is attached to people who declare themselves “atheist” or even “Free thinker”. It can result in mild differential treatment to that of being a pariah in the group.

    Like evangelicals, I have also committed myself to speaking about my non-belief of all religion since I consider it to be the single most negative impact on civilization, and I seek to change that. By being silent, we only further enable this madness. I am happy to see from these statistics presented in your article, I am not alone. I also can “testify”, if I can use that term in a non-religious manner, that speaking out has led to some uncomfortable moments, and some outright conflicts at work and in life outside of work.

    I do find it somewhat amusing that “evangelicals shared a heightened sense of bias” “and nearly 6-in-10 of white evangelicals agreed that discrimination against Christians has become as big a problem as discrimination against other religious minorities.” Christians have had their way with our society for far too long, and that has resulted in civil and criminals laws and norms of society that everyone must follow, regardless of belief, or face the consequences.

    I also am not surprised that “David Sikkink, a sociologist of religion at the University of Notre Dame”, a Catholic University, would say that evangelicals use their actions to give an example of how God works through their lives. This may be commonplace at NDU, but I think if he looked further outside of his unique work world, he would find that this is less often the case once it is discovered by the evangelical that someone is non-religious.

    Once again great article, keep them coming!

    Live life, love people without the promise of the carrot, or the threat of the stick.
    Good day!

  2. Imagine me as a Wiccan talking with an evangelical about the wonders of being Wiccan and perhaps talking about the goddess and the god. I could imagine the howls they would give me about harassing them with my beliefs. Forunately for them, I am not ever likely to do it to them. But yet they cannot seem to understand that their sharing their faith is just as much a harassment for everyone else. I think it is time that Evangelicals learn the freedom of religion includes freedom to not have to hear about it.

  3. This is my first exposure to the Tannenbaum Center for interreligious Understanding I am over 90 yrs old and have been a Catholic Religious woman for nearly 70 years. I have had the opportunity for some interChristian Dialogue between Christian denominations but have not found dialogue possibilities for one on one or small groups in a neighborhood to begin such dialogues.
    I do think that both excesses of belief and no belief can be impediments
    to communication or acceptance of individuals or groups, but I trust in the integrity of people in general.

    Are there such things? I have had little opportunity to really cross the color lines. particularly with Black persons even though I know many.

    As I see my time line( on the globe) shortening, I would like to actually experience some dialogue that is intelligent, even if emotional, and reach some widening of myown growth possibilities and perhaps contribute to some broadening of that of others.
    How does it happen?

    Is it worth the trouble?

    Sister Mary
    in West Virginia

  4. Everyone should feel free to discuss their faith, but only in “I” statements. Faith is personal. There is nothing wrong with stating what you believe, but honor others in the same way. This is how we build true community and come to really know one another.

  5. The survey itself shows a bias. As usual, Eastern Orthodox are left out of the survey. Not all Christians are Evangelical, Mainline Protestants or Roman Catholics. Eastern Orthodox are also a significant Christian group.

  6. One thing I got out of the article is that Evangelicals spend a lot more of their employer’s time proselytizing than does anyone else. Conclusion, they have a worse work ethic than the others, and are not giving the employer fair value for his money.

  7. Work is work; unlike friends of one’s choosing work colleagues are thrown together for a common goal of doing the job out of necessity. While casual comments about one’s beliefs can and do occur and accommodations made for one’s religious practices–as they are for one’s personal needs–work is not the place for missionary activities. I’m Jewish and the latter has happened often. Damned their arrogance!
    My work conversation consists of work related items–not work gossip–weather and casual pleasantries. My political and religious beliefs and personal situation are minimally mentioned if at all; they are not relevant to the task at hand. If asked about my beliefs I pleasantly–and briefly–explain but refuse to be drawn into conversations justifying Judaism-I don’t have to–or other theological philosophies.

  8. When people push Christianity on me, I ask, “Do you really believe a vengeful, angry God tortured and killed his only son as a substitute for torturing and killing humanity for for our misdeeds?” This makes most people uneasy, but not the uberChristians They agree with glee, which makes them look creepy to everyone else.

    After they joyfully affirm their God of torture, I ask, “Do you believe that God directs all human action?” They generally agree. Then I ask, “Then why is God still torturing most of humanity? Wasn’t torturing Jesus enough, or was it? Maybe Jesus wasn’t tortured enough.”

    After a while they leave me alone.

  9. The lesson my parents brought from the military is that discussing religion is taboo in the workplace because it causes fighting and rancor and interferes with the work. As a member of a minority religion, I almost never bring it up. In the past I’ve offered to work Christmas and Easter shifts for Christian co-workers if they’ll work Beltaine and Samhain for me, which has never caused any problems. One place there was this one young fanatic whose self-righteousness annoyed everyone, including the other Christians, who were embarrassed by her intolerance. As for anyone preaching at me: you all have got quite the ego trip if you assume that anyone who disagrees with you must be stupid or ignorant. I don’t care whether you’re an Abrahamic faith or an atheist: mind your own.

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