press release
Published: 23 July 2019

Workplace understanding and accommodation of religious expression is beneficial for business

By Laura Butler

Offering a dynamic perspective on religious identity in the workplace, new research published in the journal Human Resource Management highlights the important personal and organisational consequences of being able to express religious identity at work.

Credit: Getty Images
A woman at work

Religious identity is an inherent facet of workforce diversity and religious beliefs can profoundly affect how employees do their jobs. While the workplace diversity debate has garnered much media attention, religious identity is often neglected in human resource (HR) theory and practice, making it a workplace diversity issue prone to tension and conflict.

Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at the University of Surrey Dr YingFei Héliot has worked with colleagues Dr Ilka Gleibs from London School of Economics, Professor Adrian Coyle from Kingston University, Professor Denise Rousseau from Carnegie Mellon University and Dr Céline Rojon from the University of Edinburgh to conduct a systematic review, analysing the impact that religious identities can have on workplace decisions and behaviours.

Studies addressed value differences associated with religion and occupation, identity tensions, unmet expectations, and the connection of religious identity to well-being and work outcomes. The review found that religious and occupational identities can be highly compatible when work roles promote the expression of religious identity and where organisational policies and practices support that expression. Likewise, they can conflict when identity expression is hindered, or religious and organisational norms and values are misaligned.

Dr Héliot said: “Despite considerable attention surrounding the conflicts associated with religious identity in the workplace, there is strong evidence that religious identity tends to be of net benefit to an organisation and its members. Challenging the common representation of religion as a private matter, our review highlights the sustained positive effects of the integration of religious and occupational identities for individuals and companies.

“Organisations with support for workplace tolerance and religious expression are expected to induce higher member loyalty. Religious identity can also function as a coping mechanism, and the associated values and practices – such as compassion and helping – can enhance work, particularly in specific occupations such as mental and physical health professions that benefit from the ability to relate and offer emotional support to clients or patients.”

Despite legal support for religious accommodation, religious discrimination cases have sharply increased in recent years, most likely due to varying interpretations between employers and employees concerning what constitutes reasonable and legal religious practices. A truly inclusive work environment supports the expression of religious identities at work, and as the workforce becomes more diverse employers need to be aware of differences in religious practice – and understand their legal obligations to accommodate it. HR will play a critical role in balancing religious accommodation and job demands as well as promoting inclusive organisations.

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