How to Talk Religion in the Workplace

Dear DW,
A colleague once told me she felt offended whenever someone says “God bless you.” How can I make sure I’m respectful of religious etiquette in the workplace?

Asking in good faith

Dear Asking,
First of all, it’s against the law to treat a person unfavorably because of his or her religious belief, or nonbelief, points out Sharlyn Lauby, president of ITM Group Inc., a consulting firm in Gainesville, Florida, that develops training solutions. “A basic tenet of respect is making sure employees aren’t being discriminated against and, when necessary, holding individuals accountable for inappropriate behavior,” she says.

Legal matters aside, it’s important to create a culture of inclusion where people of all religious beliefs—or none—can feel comfortable. That means dropping the assumption that a coworker worships the same God as you and even being open to the possibility that some coworkers may be nonbelievers, Lauby says.

If you work closely with someone who belongs to a different religion, it wouldn’t hurt to do a little background research on that belief system.

“I once had a consulting assignment with a company whose owners observed Shabbat,” Lauby says. “I’m not Jewish, but once I was told this information, I didn’t try to contact them on Friday afternoons.”

On the other hand, we have to be willing to inform coworkers about religious customs that may impact the workplace or we may need to speak up if we feel uncomfortable. “We can’t expect others to know our religious beliefs by osmosis,” Lauby says. “We need to be prepared to communicate honestly and possibly answer questions.”

If you’re not sure where a coworker stands on religion, steer clear of the topic entirely. In fact, 31 percent of women and 27 percent of men find religion to be the most uncomfortable topic to discuss at work, according to a 2019 study by performance management company Reflektive.

If someone expresses religious beliefs you don’t agree with, don’t debate or argue. Instead, change the subject or disengage from the conversation. “If we want others to respect our religious beliefs, then we need to respect theirs,” Lauby says.

Photo by iStockPhoto

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