God’s work? The battle over religious belief in the office

Religiously qualified. Niall Carson/PA Wire

What do you want from your employer at Easter? A chocolate egg? A big slice of Simnel cake? Some time off? An invitation to attend a Christian church service? Or nothing at all, because you don’t find Easter meaningful and would rather your workplace was entirely secular?

Managerial responses to the cultural complexity of religious diversity range from following highly structured legal guidance to informal acceptance of contemporary pluralism by working around staff beliefs. There are legal frameworks in most countries to either protect or exclude religious belief from workplaces. But how 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 of dispute.

So what happens if you are required to follow a specific belief system at work? If you’re an Anglican priest, then it shouldn’t cause you a problem to believe in God as part of the employment relationship. Is it reasonable, though, for legally secular companies to impose religious beliefs on workers? And what if managers or owners in an organisation expect you to refuse to provide services to certain people because, from a specific religious perspective, their sexualities are somehow wrong?

The Protestant work ethic

Removing religion from the workplace is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Classical sociologist Max Weber wasn’t the first to note the considerable influence religious belief can have on work and workplaces in the early 1900s. He did open up a lively debate, though, that continues more than a hundred years later.

Max Weber thought capitalism was wedded 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 this was especially clear in the Calvinist doctrine of doing work to the glory of God, combined with exhortations to live frugally. The combination of rational hard work and retention of wages or profits resulted in earnings that could be invested in more productive enterprises – hence capitalism based on growth.

Through Weber’s seminal work, religion explains the most significant economic change of modernity, in a way that is intuitively appealing. It can be used to explain the enduring puzzle of why some people work harder than others, how some people accumulate more wealth, and why different parts of the world developed economically at different moments.

Weber’s argument, data, and conclusions have all been repeatedly challenged. Nonetheless, the notion of a religious work ethic is still with us in a range of forms – not necessarily Christian or underpinned by any religion. North American researchers in business schools propose a contemporary form when they argue that the promotion of spirituality in the workplace can result in higher productivity or more ethical leadership.

Equality and religion

Is that what we want from employers, though – to be guided as to what we should believe about the world in such a fundamental way, to be seen as a better employee? That direction results in Josiah Wedgwood encouraging potters to convert to Methodism so that he can rely on them to turn up to work sober on Monday morning and stay until the end of the day, making it possible to mechanise a production process that had been based on rule of thumb and the need to work.

The industrialist William Lever appointed a pliable Anglican vicar to preach the virtues of obedience to managers in the only church in his purpose-built town at Port Sunlight. More recently, managers at Tyson Foods and Walmart have encouraged employees to honour God, as a core company value. Is this what we look for at work?

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

A recent rise in legislation, however, is forcing company owners and managers to deal with the issue of religion at work. The EU-inspired British Equality Act of 2010 brought together a series of smaller pieces of workplace-related legislation, such as the Sexual Orientation and Religious Belief Act of 2003, to provide a coherent anti-discrimination equal-treatment guidance for most areas of employment. But the wrangles continue.

Controversy to be continued

It is clear already from case law that religion is likely to be the most controversial aspect of promoting equality, both in employment and in the provision of services. Something as mundane as an order for a decorated cake can create new case law. A bakery in Northern Ireland has been accused of discrimination against a gay man for refusing to make a “gay cake” on religious grounds – judgement is currently reserved, but it’s sure that some will be unhappy whatever the outcome.

Apple CEO puts his hand up for workplace equality. EPA/Monica Davey

Meanwhile in the US, a series of states are attempting to legislate in favour of discrimination against LGBT people, if a religious freedom argument is given for it. This has led to a somewhat incongruous statement from Asda’s owner Walmart in favour of diversity, opposing the debated religious freedom bill. Lest we forget, this Walmart is one of the most prominently featured organisations on Corporate Watch, especially for systematic racial and gender discrimination.

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

Religious belief (or lack of it – the New Atheist movement can be as dogmatic and doctrinaire as the most disciplinary of religions) continues to occupy a uniquely controversial position in societies around the world. Opponents claim it causes conflict and social inequality; believers assert that life without it is constrained and meaningless. Both make claims to freedom of expression and the need for freedom from others’ beliefs.

Meanwhile, the workplace is a key site for religion’s expression and constraint – as an individual and as a means of expressing corporate identity. As the legal system is challenged and revised, we can expect many more individual controversies and corporate interventions to come.

Facts matter. Your tax-deductible donation helps deliver fact-based journalism.