Workplace Dynamics: Religion is a Touchy Subject

Religion and issues related to religion are in the news all the time. Sadly, much of the news is negative, involving clashes of cultures and peoples. These conflicts upset a lot of people, and the issues are very sensitive.

In a multicultural society, there are a lot of religions, and a lot of different cultures, all with their own heritages, social structures, beliefs and traditions. The general knowledge base, however, isn’t as advanced. Most people are ignorant of at least some of the basics of other cultures. They don’t necessarily understand the perspectives of others, and that’s where the problems start.

Religion is a particularly touchy subject, in all cultures. People don’t like negative comments about their religion, particularly from those who know little or nothing about it. The general ignorance of other cultures is offensive in itself, and the net effect is that a person who knows nothing about the religion is criticizing it.

That’s hard for anyone to tolerate. Imagine if someone who was proving their ignorance of the subject with every word was condemning your beliefs. There’s a limit to how much people can be expected to put up with.

The Workplace Issues

In the workplace, religious issues, when they become sources of conflict, are extremely destructive. Not only is religious discrimination against the law, it also violates people’s constitutional rights.

The possible consequences for employers are serious. The situation is complex, and needs to be seen as a series of multiple liabilities:

  • Under Equal Opportunity laws, discrimination against people on the grounds of religion is illegal. The type of discrimination or actions by staff or employers adds a range of possibilities to the issues created by the breach of law. The employer may be held liable for multiple breaches.
  • The degrees of hostility and risks that can be created by religious issues should never be underestimated. These situations can turn violent, becoming serious personal clashes.
  • Workplace relationships can be irreparably damaged. Teams can disintegrate, and “factions” can appear in the workforce, supporting one side or another. That’s a sure sign of workplace dysfunction, and it can be exacerbated by any other issues. A minor issue can result in people refusing to cooperate, and actively promoting negative gossip which creates more friction.

What to Do about It

All individuals and employers can help stop religious discrimination. Mutual respect is the only way to lasting peace in societies and the workplace.

As a staff member:

  • You should never contribute to, or agree with, any negative commentary regarding other people’s religions.
  • Try to promote tolerance by your own actions. Make it clear you’re not part of any discriminatory issues. Your co-workers will get the message.
  • Become better informed, learn more about other cultures first hand from your colleagues. You’ll understand the many different issues far better.

As a manager or employer, give staff the following information in a formal notice:

  • Make it clear that any religious discrimination will not be tolerated.
  • Inform staff of the laws related to discrimination.
  • Inform staff that breaches of guidelines may result in disciplinary action or termination of employment.