Expressing Religious Identity at Work: 3 Quick Thoughts

Expressing Religious Identity at Work: 3 Quick Thoughts

There’s an adage that goes around a lot that the two things you never talk about in mixed company is religion and politics. With the rise of politicized evangelicalism in the 1980s onward, combined with generational shifts in communication and globalization, that seems to be a fading social norm. Many people feel their religious faith is an essential part of who they are and express it in various ways – clothing, jewelry, office decoration – that may lead to some minor or major conflicts in an office environment.

Dr. Donnelly has been studying how people’s religious faith affects their lives for about twenty years, so she’s on the blog this week with three quick thoughts on expressing religious identity at work.

Yes, It’s Legal. Also, Don’t Be a Jerk.

Unlike France where wearing “religious symbols” is outright banned in schools and government jobs (and many other employment situations), the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right of every citizen and inhabitant to not only enjoy freedom of expression, but freedom of religion instead. The government – the Bill of Rights promises – shall never infringe upon a citizen’s right to chose their own religious expression, nor shall religious expression ever be required for citizenship.

So, yes, turbans can be worn at work. So can hijabs.*

Within the regulations of your company, small statues or symbolic decorations may also be allowed – but the company is always within it’s rights to ask you take down anything in your office that they deem goes against company policy. Sure, you may argue that your “Jesus Is Lord And Anyone Who Doesn’t Believe Is Going To Hell” sign is part of your religious expression – and it may be! – but… public space. Your right to express yourself does not outweigh the company’s responsibility to provide a safe and productive working environment for all employees.

Summary: By all means, express yourself. What you believe is an essential part of you who are! But we all gotta work here, you know?

Questions are Always Better Than Assumptions

This is our gentle reminder that even if you think you understand someone else’s religion, you probably don’t understand their faith. Assuming that someone wearing a crucifix is Catholic may be a safe assumption, but assuming that means they believe all the tenants of the Catholic church is not. If you feel that head scarves for Muslim women is oppressive, we’d recommend not leading with that with your Muslim colleague.

Now, there’s a fine line here between asking questions and treating someone like Religious Google. General questions about teachings? Probably check out another resource. Specific questions about how to celebrate their holiday within your office? Schedule a meeting.

HR Folks Need To Educate Themselves

Statistically, Christianity is still the largest religion in the United States and probably will be for a while. However, that religious umbrella is so broad that it can basically mean nothing. There are vast differences within it and knowing some of those basics will go a long way to building empathy and understanding with your employees. Do you know why keeping kosher is important when you’re planning catering for your company? Have you considered accommodations for Ramadan fasts?

We’ll be providing resources for all of these tips and tricks throughout the year – not just about religious identity, but all the various parts of themselves that humans bring to work


*A key caveat here. Religious clothing falls under the same categories as others in terms of job safety. Employers are required to make ‘reasonable accommodations’, but the worker must recognize the realities of the job. For example, at our parent company, there are several positions where respirators may be worn. Facial hair cannot be worn when using a respirator and so, no matter what the reason for that facial hair, it’ll have to get shaved in order to perform the task safely. Same with head scarves, turbans, jewelry, etc.

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