For many people, faith plays a large role in their identity, so it’s only natural that it comes up in conversation. The only problem is that religion and spirituality in the work environment aren't always welcome topics of discussion or debate. While colleagues try to maintain a professional level of familiarity, religious beliefs fall into an iffy category.
There are some ways you can respectfully broach the topic, though. In fact, you might have to talk about your beliefs from time to time. These four situations are good examples of when you’d typically be justified in discussing your faith in a work environment.
1. Asking About Clothing Concerns for the Holidays
Most workplaces will give you a set list of days off from work—the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving and the winter holidays are all in the mix. But your faith may require that you stay home and observe other important dates that your business doesn’t.
In this case, you’re more than justified to speak directly to your boss about needing reasonable accommodation for your beliefs. The same goes for any alterations you might need to make to your work uniform as required by your religion. Tell your employers what religious traditions you follow, and there shouldn’t be any issues or further explanations needed.
If you feel as though you’re not being heard or respected for the beliefs you hold, you might have to consider a motion to cease any discrimination or discriminatory practices against you. In the past, employees have won suits that allowed them to wear their traditional clothing to work or take days off to observe holidays or religious traditions properly.
2. Choosing Your Words Wisely
As we’ve mentioned, your employer has no right to discriminate against you based on your religion or religious practices. But it’s also essential that you respect your colleagues and choose your words wisely if your faith happens to come up in conversation. One man’s employers claimed in 2012 that he talked so much about his religion that his colleagues felt his behavior was harassment, leading to his firing.
Joanna Friedman, an employment attorney in Washington, spoke with TODAY and said that your employer does have the right to stop you from continuing any workplace behaviors that reach that level—where another employee feels like it's harassment. “It’s fine for employees and even supervisors to talk about religious beliefs, as long as it’s not done in a manner that’s intimidating or interferes with employment duties or creates a situation while you’re abusing your authority,” she said.
Perhaps the best piece of advice is to err on the side of caution. Bringing religious materials into work or otherwise preaching about your beliefs is inappropriate. While you're entitled to religious expression, it's important to do it without making others feel uncomfortable.
3. Having Personal Conversations
You can safely speak about religion in the workplace when you know it’s in the proper context. For example, you might have a strong friendship with a coworker who follows a particular faith. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions and having a personal conversation about their beliefs—just as long as you know she's comfortable discussing her religion or belief. And, if that person hands the mic back over to you, you can feel comfortable speaking about your faith when asked, too.
It’s critical that your conversation is just that—a back-and-forth exchange. If it feels like you’re preaching, even to a friend over lunch, she might not be comfortable with it. Otherwise, you can feel free to talk about weekends spent at church events or celebrating a religious observance or holidays. These are religious topics, of course, but it’s more about you and your life than it is about the tenants of your faith and your religious practices.
You also shouldn’t fear bringing up religion in the face of bad news, a time when you’d be likely to pray at home. Perhaps a colleague has announced that he or she is very sick. There are plenty of dos and don’ts when it comes to interacting with someone with cancer, for example. It’s fine to ask your colleague if they mind you praying for them. Yes, religion is involved here, but the faith-centric points of the conversation would start and end there. Of course, if your colleague says that your religious expression as it relates to her makes her feel uncomfortable, respect that.
4. When You're Following Suit
Not every situation will be a clear-cut yes or no situation. Instead, you’ll have to decide on a case-by-case basis if it’s appropriate to bring up your faith while at work.
In these instances, all you can do is read the room. Start by examining the person’s body language to see if they’re interested and engaged. For example, if they’re avoiding eye contact while talking, they might be disinterested in the subject. If they step further away from you mid-conversation, it might show they’re not as close to you as you thought—you might not have a connection strong enough to talk about something as sensitive as religious observance. Or perhaps they just don't want to talk about religion and spirituality in the workplace.
You can also let conversation flow organically and let your colleague decide what you talk about. If your religion or belief pops up then, don’t be worried to talk about it—the other person has made it clear that she's open to broaching the topic, so you can feel comfortable to do the same.
Resources for Learning More About Religion in the Workplace
Have an open mind when your colleagues discuss their personal lives, and you can expect the same in return. At the same time, be respectful if another employee doesn't want to discuss religion or other personal issues; some people prefer to keep work and personal lives separate, and religious beliefs often fall into the latter category.
Here are some more resources to learn more about religion in the workplace.