Religion at Work

Thanks to my friend JP for linking me to this brief report today.  The article itself is woefully brief, and in that respect does more harm than good.  The headline is blatantly misleading, given the fuller circumstances that can only be glimpsed by  reading the actual report of the Employment Appeal Tribunal (there is a link to this report in the third paragraph of the article and it’s worth perusing).

More at issue than proselytizing is the matter of the relationship between superiors and subordinates within the workplace.  What might be intended as good-will and personal conversation by a higher-ranking employee might be interpreted as unwanted pressure which could have negative impact on the subordinate’s job security and advancement.  Unfortunately, the full report doesn’t give much detail about the subordinate’s allegations in the matter, and the Tribunal rejects the idea that the subordinate – given the situation – should have resorted to less formal conversations rather than a formal complaint against her superior.

This is an awkward situation, to say the least.  It could easily be construed as someone being castigated for sharing their faith while at work, something that isn’t expressly illegal (yet).  But the line between what is a mutually agreed upon discussion with a subordinate and what is unwanted pressure or “grooming” can be dangerously thin.  It can be easy to assert that the subordinate acted unnecessarily and should have responded conversationally to indicate she wasn’t interested.  But I can understand the fear that woman might have had that rejecting the discussions of the superior employee might jeopardize her employment or advancement opportunities.  And it should be remembered that people don’t always respond well when they are stressed out and worried.

It seems like an unfortunate situation all around.  I trust that the superior employee was well-intentioned in sharing her faith.  I trust that the subordinate really did feel unduly pressured.  But what results is a piece of legal paperwork that will have a further chilling effect on religious dialogue in the workplace.

Sharing our faith with someone else can be a tricky undertaking, particularly with someone that we don’t know very well, or may only know in a professional context.  People (irrespective of religious belief) need to work hard to maintain a professional environment that is both personally satisfying as well as aware of the many varied personalities and beliefs of their co-workers.  Particularly, Christians of rank in an organization need to be aware that increasingly their beliefs are both foreign to those around them, and that some people find them offensive.  Picking up on non-verbal cues becomes critical to navigating a professional relationship that may offer the opportunity from time to time to transcend into personal realms.  Some of these non-verbal cues:

Does the person identify themselves as a religious adherent?  The subordinate employee seems to have indicated to the superior employee that she was a practicing Muslim.  That’s very different from someone who claims no religious affiliation or a nominal, non-practicing relationship.  Someone active in their religious practice is going to be less open – as a rule – to proselytizing from another religion (Christian or otherwise).  When someone tells me that they’re active as someone in another religion (or denomination), I presume that at best, we might be able to engage in dialogue about our beliefs, but barring some very blatant and obvious signal, I won’t invite them to attend worship with me.

How does the person respond to religious discussions/actions?  The superior employee provided reading material and prayer for the subordinate, actions which were clearly a source of angst for the subordinate employee.  I prefer to ask someone if they would be interested in a bit of literature rather than simply handing it to them.  And I work hard to read body language (posture, facial responses, voice inflection) as well as verbal cues (negativity, ambivalence, disinterest, etc.) to determine whether or not to move ahead.  I would definitely be very cautious in praying with someone who has already indicated that they do not share my religious beliefs.  Nothing prevents me from praying for them, without their knowledge (and which does not require their permission!), but asking them to participate in the prayer and initiating physical contact, that’s a big difference.  Given the increasing levels of intolerance and discomfort evidenced by people to things outside their known or preferred views, I think it’s not very wise to pray with someone unless they have specifically asked for that.  Even then, there’s no guarantee that after the fact they aren’t going to change their minds and potentially accuse me of doing something they weren’t comfortable with.

Proselytizing vs. Vocation.  As Christians we are not required to share our faith.  There is no mandate that puts our faith or salvation at risk if we don’t actively reach out to other people.  Throughout most of human history and in most parts of the world, such activities have been tacitly outlawed or extremely difficult.  Do we hope that others will come to saving faith in Jesus Christ, particularly those that we may see more than anyone else in our lives – our colleagues?  Of course!  But whereas proselytizing can be difficult and complicated in the workplace, living out our faith in how we engage our work vocation should be easy.

Are we sources of peace in our workplace or irritants and agitators?  Do we hold ourselves out and away from the water cooler gossip or are we known for having the latest dirt?  Are we a source of encouragement and support for our colleagues or known as a ruthless cutthroat always seeking our own personal advancement?  Do we do our work well or are we sloppy?  Are we punctual and professional or always leaving others in the lurch due to our lack of attention?  Do we see our job as a gift from God, a means of supporting ourselves and loving our neighbors by providing desired goods and services, or are we always complaining about our work and deriding it?

How we approach our work is not the same thing as sharing the Gospel.  Being a good employee and colleague is not the same thing as sharing about our hope in the resurrected Christ.  But our attitude and reputation in the workplace can open doors to conversations with other people who see our attitude as different and commendable, worthy of emulation and a source of further investigation.  Some jobs make this easier than others to be sure!  But if I pray that a colleague come to faith in Christ, I need to demonstrate in very real and practical ways my love of neighbor which is sourced in and informed by my love of God, and more importantly, God’s love of me.  Just because we (currently) have the luxury of engaging in workplace discussions about our faith doesn’t mean this is a requirement.  There are many people around the world who have just as deep a faith in Christ as we do but do not have that luxury.  I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit can use them in deep and meaningful ways as witness to the truth of Christ, and that this begins long before they ever confide to a co-worker that they read the Bible or go to church.



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