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Four Questions Around Religious Expression in the Workplace

Four Questions Around Religious Expression in the Workplace
 Lionel Honoré
Director of the Observatory for Religion in the Workplace

During the 2010s, the issue of religion in the workplace became a commonplace discussion for businesses, public administrators and communities across France. It was legislated upon in both the 2016 Labor Law and the 2021 Law on reinforcing Republican Principles. At the EU level, the Equality Framework Directive, implemented in 2003, seeks to protect against discrminiation in the workplace based on religion, among others, however allowing room for justified exceptions. A series of rulings have taken place since then, navigating such cases. Since 2013, the rulings have often requested that employees adopt "religiously neutral" dress codes. All this goes to show that the expression of religion in the workplace is a complex question that is difficult to navigate, both legally and socially. 

Forty-one percent of French companies experienced issues related to religion in the workplace in 2013, which rose to 66.5% by 2021. While few situations involving religion have posed any significant problems, a growing proportion (6% in 2013 and 19.5% in 2021) have led to tension and conflict. 

In France, religious expressions and behaviors can be grouped into two categories. The first gathers the most frequent, and least problematic, such as wearing religious symbols, prayer during breaks or requests to adapt work hours. In the majority of cases, the behavior of both religious employees and their managers allows for pragmatic solutions, with religious observance causing little disruption to work processes. The second includes more transgressive behaviors, such as refusing to work with women or people of another religion, praying (sometimes collectively) during work hours, or refusing to perform specific tasks for religious reasons. The problems that arise are, however, not restricted to the actions themselves. They also extend to the behaviors of religious employees, their colleagues, and their managers, which may end up being more demanding and less open to accommodation. In the minority of companies where this happens, tensions, conflicts and rigid behaviors can cause severe disruptions to both workers and the organization itself. 

In France, religion in the workplace often raises questions over the twin principles of secularism and religious freedom.

Companies dealing with issues of religious observance need to consider two very different dimensions. The first is the immediate impact of the religious expression, which depends on the interactions between the actors in the field, individual behaviors, the physical environment, etc. The second dimension is political, framed by both national and corporate values. 

In France, religion in the workplace often raises questions over the twin principles of secularism and religious freedom, the requirement for regulation without prohibition - the need to block transgressive and disruptive behaviors, while not prohibiting all religious observance. This context raises four key questions.

Businesses mirroring society? 

Businesses are part of the society around them, profoundly affected by social phenomena and often reflecting social realities. In France, the twenty-first century has been marked not only by questions over the validity and depth of secularization, but also over the meaning and scope of the principle itself. The relative weakening of Catholicism, the affirmation of the place of Islam, the rising power of evangelicalism, and the development of radical religious movements are all issues that question the twentieth-century balance between State and Religion. In a similar sense, it also questions the relationship between religious discourse and the religious practice of people of faith.

The role of the state: dominate or delegate? 

There is also the question of the involvement of the State. What should be the scope and form of religion in the workplace? What should the position of the State be - simply that of a safeguard of the constitutional principles of both freedom of faith and secularism? 

Or should it, as in the 2016 French labor law, give companies themselves the power to regulate the religious expression of their own employees - essentially, work out their own methods of handling religion in the workplace? Should State departments, such as the French labor inspectorate, support management decisions in even the most delicate situations? Are both things even possible at the same time? 

Could the increase in religious behavior at work be a response to managers failing to give meaning to [...] work itself [...]?

Come as you are?

The third question concerns the increasing relevance of this issue and what it says about the evolution of work and business. Since the 1990s, firms have emphasized teamwork, collaboration and autonomy, encouraging their employees to be involved in a way that mobilizes their individuality. Work is no longer just about using one’s head and hands, but also calling upon an individual’s sensitivity, creativity and sociability. If an employee comes to work "as they are", it is perhaps unsurprising that their personal selves, including their spiritual and religious commitments, require some freedom to express themselves in the workplace. 

All down to management? 

The fourth and final question concerns the role of management. Could the increase in religious behavior at work be a response to managers failing to give meaning to either work itself or, indeed, the people involved in their businesses? Employees may feel the need to attempt to guide their own behavior by expressing their religious beliefs at work due to a lack of support from management and an overall corporate culture that has failed them.

This article kicks off an incoming series of monthly articles that will discuss and answer these and other questions raised by religion in the workplace. Experts from around the world and from a variety of viewpoints will demonstrate a range of approaches and solutions to a debate that is crucial to rebuilding a healthy relationship with work and society at large. 


Copyright: fauxels

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