A recent survey of Canadian employees found that 39% of religious minorities feel uncomfortable expressing their opinions at work. That, to put it mildly, is a high number. It was even higher than the rate for visible ethnic minorities (31%) or for women (27%). Why is this?
I think at least two factors are at play:
- Is Religion Really Private?
Westerners generally – and Canadians especially – tend to think of religion as a private matter. If you are religious, that’s for you and your family and something done at home or at specific places you visit on your own time.
Frankly, this view is unsound. People cannot leave their religiosity on a shelf near the front door as they leave home for work (note to reader: in a different age, people left home to go to work). For many, religiosity is a core component of identity and can no more be set aside than one sets aside being a feminist. Communicating to folks that some key part of themselves needs to be tucked away will impede people’s sense of ease and acceptance at work in ways reflected in the above survey.
- Don’t Know, Change Subject
An additional problem is that many of us are uncomfortable talking about religion. This stems partly from the fact that we often feel uninformed (or even ignorant) about the topic. Our schools teach us about history and civics but typically avoid religion with a ten-foot pole. Preaching religion in public schools would be completely inappropriate but not teaching about a topic that does so much – shaping politics, global events, peace movements, or the way ordinary people deal with life, death, trauma and the search for meaning and community – well, that is a little crazy.
But since we don’t learn about it, we can often feel insecure about the topic. We might step on toes or say something inappropriate and so we look for safer conversational ground. There are lots of social cues that convey this discomfort from micro-expressions to the way we shift the topic quickly.
For someone belonging to such a tradition, these two factors combine to communicate that an important part of you is off limits and needs to be contained. If that’s your experience of your work environment, it is no wonder that many learn to keep their views to themselves. And that, my friends, is a loss. A loss to the employer who is deprived of insights and the personal investment of their employees and a loss to the employee who spends too much of their day holding themselves back.
At Encounter, we educate people about both these factors by explaining Western conceptions of “religion” as private and by teaching staff about individual religious traditions. We have done this with healthcare, police and other organizations in Canada and the United States. A little literacy goes a long way to letting each of us bring our whole selves to work.