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The French Brief - Religion in the French Workplace: What it Really Looks Like

The French Brief - Religion in the French Workplace: What it Really Looks Like
 Lionel Honoré
Director of the Observatory for Religion in the Workplace

From the outside, France may sometimes seem destined to a dialogue of the deaf when it comes to religion. It is a country that certainly has forged and staunchly defends the notion of laïcité, a legal definition of the impartiality between the State, religion and society. While not entirely ungraspable in and of itself, French secularism is particularly laden with polemics. Not a year goes by without international headlines announcing at least once that French society is divided over freedom of expression, public displays of religion, or what meals to serve to pupils depending on their faith.

When Lionel Honoré, Director of the Observatory for Religion in the Workplace (l’Observatoire du Fait Religieux en Entreprise), launched a study on the expression of religious beliefs within French companies in 2012, his aim was to tackle the matter from the inside. His idea was that the only way to understand the experience of religion in France, in the workplace specifically, was to break down concrete day-to-day interactions in order to study them up close. This study, which came to be known as the Barometer of Religion in the Workplace, sought answers to questions such as: how does religiosity fit in the workplace? To what extent does it affect the company’s organization and operations? Do expressions of religious beliefs affect the managerial environment? Beyond the findings of the study itself, the very fact that these questions need to be answered is telling of France’s approach to secularism.

Throughout its eight editions, the aim of the Barometer is plain and simple: to objectify religious concerns in order to understand what is at stake for the people who experience them. With this mission, the Barometer has become a measuring stick and a gateway to grasping the place that religion holds within French companies, and in fine, society at large. Such a granular approach could perhaps finally open the way towards a constructive dialogue on France and religion, both for the French and for the foreign observer. It is with this aim that Institut Montaigne has been a partner of this publication since 2019. For each edition since, we’ve put forward concrete policy proposals, an element which had until now been missing from the debate around the topic of religion in the workplace.

Methodology & Key Takeaways 

The 2021 edition Religion au travail: croire au dialogue, Baromètre du Fait Religieux en Entreprise 2020-2021 (Religion at Work: Believing in a Dialogue, Barometer of Religious Expression in Companies 2020-2021) is based on a survey of 25,000 executives and managers. In total, 1,123 testimonies from managers were used, complemented by qualitative interviews and on-the-field observations. The results were published on May 6, 2021, alongside recommendations for both public authorities and private actors. 

The broad conclusions of the report defy preconceived notions on religions in France:

  • Two thirds of French companies witness expressions of religious beliefs, confirming a stable trend observed in the past editions of the Barometers; 
  • In 70.1% of cases, religious behaviors are not perceived as negative and do not disrupt the companies’ operations;
  • Only a small part of behaviors are problematic: among the cases that require managerial intervention only 19.5% generate tensions;
  • The predominant expression of religious belief is "invisible", referring to those who decide to keep their faith private, in order to prevent stigmatization and discrimination.


The French Brief - Religion in the French Workplace: What it Really Looks LikeThe French Brief - Religion in the French Workplace: What it Really Looks Like

Expressing religion in the French workplace: a common phenomenon

Since the first edition of the Barometer in 2012, there has been an increase in the number of people who encounter religious expressions in the workplace, whether occasionally or regularly: from 44% in the first edition, to 66.5% this year. These numbers should however not be misinterpreted. Professional life has become increasingly intertwined with the personal one, especially since the onset of Covid-19. More importantly, for 3 out of 4 people, these manifestations are not perceived negatively. The "come as you are" mantra of companies and the broader acknowledgement of people’s faith mirror these attitudes. 

Concretely, there are various ways in which people express their religious affiliation within the workplace. 29% of cases of manifestation of religious belief at work concern requests of changes in working schedules and absences; 24% concern wearing visible signs of religion, 12% concern prayer during working hours. In most cases, these situations are not problematic and involve all religions, from Christianity to Judaism, to Islam and more. 

One person out of five (21%) detects situations of discrimination in the workplace, whether regularly or occasionally.

Nonetheless, despite the stable presence of religious behaviours that is widely accepted for the most part, stigmatization and discrimination remain an issue. From a Head of Human Resources being labelled as the "Catholic one", to the Muslim employee that find themselves on the receiving end of Ramadan jokes, religion remains a strain in some cases. One person out of five (21%) detects situations of discrimination in the workplace, whether regularly or occasionally. Within these, the prejudice is most strongly at play during the recruitment process (20% of the cases). Of that 20%, Muslims are most affected (70%). 

Two sides to the same reality

The highlight of the 2021 Barometer might be its insight into the coexistence of two realities regarding expressions of religious belief in French companies. In the majority of cases, these various expressions are accepted, well-managed and non-conflictual. On the other hand, there is a small but concerning portion of cases that are problematic and prone to conflict. 

As mentioned earlier, in 70.1% of cases, expressions of religious belief at work are not perceived negatively. Within the details, we find that 76.5% of requests linked to religious expressions are seen as reasonable, even if more than half (54%) require managerial intervention to resolve an issue. 

At the very same time, there are cases that remain conflictual, if not the source of dysfunctions within the workplace. Alongside the expressions of religious beliefs mentioned earlier, such as changes in the working schedule, we also find problematic actions such as refusing to work with, or under the management of a woman, or refusing to shake hands with a woman, and these cases account for 13% of manifestations of religious belief. Among the cases that require managerial intervention, 19.5% do end up creating tensions and conflicts within the workplace. Perhaps even more striking is the increasing share of severe organizational dysfunction caused by one’s religious expression: a share that rose from 12% in 2019 to 16% in 2021. These trends highlight the worrying increase of rigorist behaviors within French companies: the share of acts perceived as unacceptable in the workplace rose from 8% to 12% between 2019 and 2021. 

These findings need to be put into perspective with the "invisible" expression of religion. Whether our of choice or by fear of discrimination, the invisibilization of one’s religious faith is the main trend in French companies. Immeasurable by its very nature, the Barometer had made a conscious choice not to make this trend a central element of its study, focusing instead on the outward behaviours that could be statistically broken down.

In 70.1% of cases, expressions of religious belief at work are not perceived negatively.

Details matter

For the first time in its eight editions, the Barometer has sought to study the details of religious expression in the workplace and to identify the religions, individuals, sectors and companies at the heart of the matter. 

The most frequent religion encountered is Islam (73%) followed by Catholicism (20%), Judaism (15%) and Evangelical cults (13%). The manifestation of Islam is more heterogenous than the other religions and more prone to dysfunctional dimensions. 

Although religion is present in all sorts of French companies, the industrial sector is at the core of the analysis, by itself representing 15% of religious expressions at work. Sectors such as transport and logistics, the construction industry and mass retail follow closely. In fact, companies between 1,000 and 5,000 employees and companies above 5,000 employees account respectively for 21% and 22% of the cases. 

The profile of the individuals also offers valuable insight. Employees and workers account for more than half of the cases (34% and 39% each), technical supervisors represent 16% while senior managers and senior executives only represent 6% and 5% respectively. Moreover, the majority of cases are simultaneously related to both men and women, while 16% of cases are only expressed by women and 32% only by men. However the most problematic behaviors come mostly from the acts of relatively young men of low socioeconomic status. 

The 2021 Barometer of Religion in the Workplace shows empirical evidence that the state of religion in France is not what it may seem at first glance. It is essential to observe both religious behaviours and society’s response to them concretely and in detail. In doing so, we can identify the nuances and concrete areas where regulatory action needs to be taken. It is through such examples that we may find the first steps towards a peaceful dialogue. 



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