Managing religious issues at work: words and deeds

Updated: May 1

Hugo Gaillard*

Associate professor in Management Sciences

Le Mans University

*Faculty member of the Business Science Institute.


Article originally published on The Conversation France

The Observatoire du fait religieux en entreprise (OFRE), which publishes an annual barometer of religious expression in the workplace, shows that while the phenomenon has stabilized in recent years, and has done so since 2013, the overall trend remains upward. More than two out of three respondents (66.5%) are confronted with it on a regular or occasional basis. Also, the realities observed are not the same depending on the company.

Religious expression in the workplace includes acts, behaviors and attitudes related to the religious affiliation of employees. It can take the form, for example, of requests for time off work to observe religious holidays, the wearing of a religious symbol, or a request for flexible working hours. It may also include a refusal to work with or under the direction of persons of a different gender.

Legally, private organizations can restrict religious expression at work through internal regulations, provided that these restrictions are justified by the nature of the task and proportionate to the goal sought, and that they are linked to the proper functioning of the company or to the commercial interest and image of the company.

To position oneself within these criteria and to define what is possible in this area, means that organizations must adopt a "posture" with regard to religious issues.

Managers on the front line

The challenge is then to guarantee its deployment and application in all of the organization's departments, units and sites, which is not always easy in the private sector. For public organizations, for example, the rule is clearer: it is the neutrality of public agents and those who carry out a public service mission.

In a recent article published in the journal Employee Relations, we demonstrated that the position between what the organizations we studied say and wish to do in terms of religious expression at work is sometimes different from what is put into practice by managers and experienced by work teams.

The situations are indeed complex, because they invite identity at work and are sometimes misinterpreted by all the actors involved (manager, colleague, employee). The subject of religion can therefore quickly become sensitive, particularly in the current societal context, and given the repercussions of certain past legal cases.

Studies on this subject show that, in this context, the role of the manager is major in the application of the rules, and that these managers adopt differentiated strategies, very sensitive to both the context of the company and the manager himself. In addition, companies are in the minority when it comes to taking a clear position on the subject of religion, for example by using the tools provided by law (less than 30% mention it in their internal regulations, for example, according to OFRE).

Calls for help

In our recent research, we have studied four different organizations, through interviews and observation periods. Among these organizations: a local authority (in which the law imposes neutrality on agents), a large B2B service company, and two SMEs, one that operates mainly on the basis of a denomination (an affinity company), and another, which debates religious expression at work.

We thus show that there are two types of postures.

The first are the aligned postures, i.e. those for which the wishes stated by the top management in terms of regulation of religious expression at work are effectively observed at the operational level by the teams, and with the support of the managers. This is the case for the two SMEs. The vision carried by the leader, often charismatic, is clear and accepted by the employees. It is also known and applied.

The second are the non-aligned postures, i.e. those where what the management proclaims is not always concretely implemented on the different sites of the company. They concern two of the four organizations, which must specifically manage prayer and the wearing of religious symbols. In these companies, differences in treatment are noted between sites or between departments. This is the case, for example, for an employee in the public sector who can wear a discreet headscarf in one department, but is not allowed to in another.

First, we note that some requests are rather well understood by managers, and are not perceived as transgressive. For example, it is generally accepted by organizations and managers that employees can request religious time adjustments, as one respondent from one of the SMEs studied testifies:

"We don't work with stopwatches, we don't work with schedules: we work with objectives, and what matters is that they are achieved. As long as it is planned with everyone, it is possible."

Other practices are completely banned in organizations, and managers and their teams also perceive these prohibitions. This is the case, for example, in the affinity company studied, for the refusal to work with people of the opposite sex:

"If tomorrow we have to work in pairs and one of them says no, I don't work with a woman, I'll say "well, go home if you don't work with a woman, set up your business with guys".

That said, several factors have been identified in this lack of alignment between organizational and managerial posture. It seems that ritualized prayer and the wearing of visible signs (particularly the veil) are treated differently by managers, and are less often considered by them as religious practices "like any other". They lead them to hesitate, and on these two behaviors, managers expect elements to help them make decisions.

Indeed, without clear official rules, or in the absence of widespread communication of these rules, managers can find themselves isolated, and build their own position, which exposes the company legally and does not guarantee respect for the rights of employees. Indeed, many managers indicate that they do not really know what the company wants, or even perceive contradictory injunctions. Furthermore, they indicate that they have difficulty in building their arguments in the face of such behavior, not really knowing what criteria to use, or sometimes what decision to make.

Possible levers of alignment

Some companies suffer from a gap between what they say they do in terms of regulating religious expression and what is sometimes observed. This can be explained by the isolation of the operational manager in this context. A more formal approach, for example by making more frequent use of tools such as internal regulations or awareness-raising initiatives, seems necessary.

Moreover, although the use of awareness-raising and training is tending to increase, it is often carried out on too small a number of employees, and does not reach all populations, focusing in particular on executives.

Similarly, this research shows that staff working at headquarters seem to be better informed than those spread over different sites in large service companies. It will therefore be necessary to be attentive to possible inequalities in the distribution of communication and training credits, so as not to reinforce these inequalities.

The awareness-raising mentioned above could concern the deconstruction of stereotypes linked to certain religious practices or certain religions, and should also concern the implementation of the organizational posture as defined by the company's management. Thus, if training is a necessary condition, the positioning of the company on the basis of the criteria provided by the law is a prerequisite.

Article translated from French with


Read also...

Hugo Gaillard's articles on The Conversation France.

Hugo Gaillard's articles & books via CAIRN.Info.

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