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Diversity, religiosity and spirituality in the workplace

USA, research review, December 2012

High potentials in the pipeline: Leaders pay it forwardIn secular societies such as the USA, relatively little research focuses on the relationship between religion and the workplace. Whilst such a topic is said to fit under the rubric of “diversity”, in fact this subject is dominated by discussions of race and gender. Responses to the topic of religion and spirituality in the workplace lack coherence and range from ignoring the topic as one more suitable for private discussions, overt support for example via religious holidays and complaints of religious discrimination.

Rethinking this domain was the subject of a recent article by Associate Professor Mattis and Doctoral candidate Charles Schaeffer (New York University). Starting with an almost back-to-basics approach, Mattis and Schaeffer reconsidered the foundational definitions of work and diversity, before examining the intersection between religion, spirituality and the workplace. Whilst this review could not be called comprehensive or a manifesto, Mattis and Schaeffer raise interesting questions, for example, would a more widespread discussion about religion and work challenge current expectations that meaning and self-esteem are derived from work and that the role of religion is to provide stress relief from work? 


The aim of the research was to open a new discussion about diversity, work and religion and to use intersectionality theory as a way to provide a coherent point of view.


The method comprised a review of over 60 publications on work, religion and diversity.

Findings and observations

Schaeffer and Mattis make three insightful observations about the current state of discussions about religion and work, namely in relation to the (i) weighting of attention and (ii) nervousness about religiosity, leading to a level of (iii) workplace neglect and complaint

The weighting of current attention

By way of background, Schaeffer and Mattis observed that current literature on work and diversity is dominated by a focus on white collar workplaces and an implicit expectation that meaning is derived from work giving the “work as a vocation/career” paradigm. In comparison, relatively little attention is given to a discussion of work as a mechanism of financial survival /career. Moreover, and somewhat curiously given that many of the early battles against unequal treatment of workers were waged by religious groups and based out of religious institutions (e.g. Black church members building the Southern Unions holding meetings out of Black churches.), there is little discussion of religion and in particular minority religions. This observation leads Schaeffer and Mattis to question whether a more balanced weighting of attention “might challenge conceptualizations of work as inherently meaningful and as a context from which individuals necessarily gain esteem”. Such a discussion might also highlight how religion and spiritual beliefs act as support mechanisms for workplace stressors.

Nervousness and tension

Schaeffer and Mattis found tensions inherent in how ‘religiosity’ and ‘spirituality’ are defined, with significant consequences. In particular, religiosity, which focuses on organised practices and rituals has come to be associated with “rigid, personal individual systems and beliefs”. On the other hand, spirituality is a more abstract term referring to a belief in a higher power and has become “associated with adaptive, unifying, community building ideas and emotions”. Critically, Schaeffer and Mattis observed that this split has profound implications for the way in which we handle workplace religious and spiritual diversity.

Workplace neglect and complaint

Employers have begun dealing with religious and spiritual diversity by promoting spirituality and seeking to find a common ground, while censoring religious identity. This split is based on the idea that spirituality is binding, universal and positive whilst religion is a cause for conflict. Schaeffer and Mattis suggest that although developed with good intentions, this “religion blind” perspective results in the suppression of religious differences without recognising the need for understanding.  

Further complicating this issue is the prevailing Christian history in the US that has led to biased views of spirituality which further isolate and disadvantage already marginalised and minority groups. Schaeffer and Mattis used data to highlight just how large this issue is:

  • In the US there are 43 major religious and spiritual traditions
  • A 2008 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that 89% of surveyed organisations reported “some” to “a great degree” of religious/spiritual diversity among its employees
  • Despite this empirical evidence of a large and spiritually diverse workforce, the same SHRM survey reported that only:
    • 55% of organisations took into account religious beliefs when planning holidays
    • 40% planned work events taking religious holidays into account
    • 28% offered paid leave that was not part of the regular holiday calendar
    • 17% provided dress code exemptions to accommodate religious and spiritual needs.

In terms of legal consequences, Schaeffer and Mattis noted that in the last 12 years, Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaints based on religious bias have increased 69% - a rate that surpasses race, national origin or sex discrimination complaints. This has cost businesses $7.6 million in settlements alone. Despite these figures, only half of companies in the USA are training managers in religious and spiritual diversity issues and only 37% are training employees to respect these specific differences in the workplace.

Concluding comments

In an attempt to rebalance the current weight of attention, and navigate the tensions between religion and spirituality,  Schaeffer and Mattis discuss a more sophisticated framework which wold recognise :

  • Individuals hold multiple, nonexclusive, social identities that are not additive, but instead the whole is greater than the sum of each part
  • Social identities shape our beliefs and people’s treatment in the workplace
  • Understanding of people’s identities are shaped by our histories, experiences, institutions and spaces
  • Identities operate at the individual, group and system level.

Taking the theoretical to the practical, Schaeffer and Mattis provide the following examples:

  • People of different backgrounds, histories and ethnicity will have different work experiences in the same time and location based on the broader cultural and political landscape they are working within (e.g. a Muslim American man of Middle-Eastern or East African descent who is a taxi driver working in a major US urban centre post-9/11 would encounter different stresses than an Irish American Christian man in the same profession who is living in the same city)
  • The effectiveness of the interactions people have with their co-workers, managers and organisations will shape their levels of trust, safety and connectedness
  • The way people turn to their faith will be influenced by the kinds of stress they experience from these interactions.

The article concluded with a number of recommendations for future research into this area, which Human Resources professionals could consider in relation to their own diversity policies. Those included:

  • Examination of current understandings of spirituality in the workplace, which may help to identify how some groups continue to experience structural discrimination and marginalisation
  • Exploration of the intersectional histories of marginalised and majority groups attempting to incorporate spirituality and religion into the diversity of the workplace.

To read the full article, see Schaeffer, C. & Mattis, J. (2012) “Diversity, religiosity, and spirituality in the workplace”, Journal of Management, Spirituality & Religion, Vol. 9, No. 4.


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