Spirituality in the workplace

Sun shining through a tree BUSINESS

Spiritual self-disclosure is unusual in Australian workplaces and religion is largely perceived as taboo, according to UniSA research.

Dr Joanna Crossman.Centre for Human Resource Management researcher Dr Joanna Crossman (pictured right) says despite globalisation and increasing employee diversity, Australian employees think it is too risky to openly talk about their spiritual beliefs in the workplace.

“My research reveals that some workers believe that spiritual self-disclosure may be stigmatising, with the potential for negative consequences,” she says.

“Those risks identified by workers included property damage, resignations, dismissal, abusive emails, co-worker aggression, repugnance, shunning and ridicule, often communicated through hostile humour. Most of all, it was about being ‘on the outer’.”

Dr Crossman’s research found that the idea that religion should be taboo in the workplace was rationalised by many workers on the basis of their perceptions that Australia is a secular society – a country where people, having drifted away from religion and almost become embarrassed by it, shun the spiritually profound.

She says the concept of taboo tended to be raised in relation to religion rather than to other forms of spirituality broadly associated with well-being, such as yoga and meditation. For example, one research participant indicated that while religion was never discussed at their workplace, the spiritual experiences of someone who went away for 12 months and returned ‘with long hair and eating tofu instead of chicken’ would be.

“When an individual employee’s spiritual beliefs and identity does become an issue that places him or her ‘on the outer’, it can be framed essentially as a conflict between personal identity and the identity of an organisation or profession,” Dr Crossman says.

“One participant said she believed that if she spoke about her beliefs as a Christian at work, people would think she was weird – illustrating a conflict between her spiritual identity and the workplace culture.

“A similar conflict arose in an account describing how uncomfortable an employee felt in being expected to participate in a colleague’s birthday celebration at work, when such practices were discouraged in her spiritual community.

“Another participant recalled disclosing that she was a Muslim in a meeting where staff were ‘having a bit of a laugh’ about Islam. She noted that those present became embarrassed and even a little scared about the potential ramifications of their inappropriate comments and the assumption that ‘no-one there was a Muslim’.”

Dr Crossman says while most organisations are aware of the need for prayer facilities and menus which meet religious requirements, a deeper understanding of spiritual diversity issues would be valuable for employees and managers.

She makes the following recommendations for managers:

  1. Become familiar with the law with regard to discrimination as it pertains to spiritual beliefs and practices.

  2. Adopt a proactive approach. Have some strategies in place for communicating inclusive spiritual working environments, so everyone knows what the expectations are.

  3. Don’t use avoidance tactics. It may help to prevent things escalating if managers think about how they’ll act on things beforehand and engage in the issue rather than avoiding it.

Dr Crossman also believes that since globalisation has intensified spiritual diversity in Australian workplaces, university business and management schools are well placed to prepare managers for these sometimes sensitive scenarios from within their curriculum.

Dr Crossman’s latest paper on workplace spirituality can be read in the Journal of Management and Organization.