HOUSTON, Texas — New research is revealing just how common religious discrimination is in the workplace. A team from Rice University says two-thirds of Muslims, half of Jews, and over a third of evangelical Protestant Christians all report dealing with some form of discrimination linked to their religious beliefs while on the job. While discriminatory experiences differ between religions, these findings suggest a troubling broader trend regarding religion in the workplace.
“When we conducted interviews, we were able to get much deeper into how people are experiencing religious discrimination,” says lead study author Rachel Schneider, a postdoctoral research fellow in Rice’s Religion and Public Life Program (RPLP), in a university release. “We found that it’s not just about hiring, firing and promotion, which are the things that people usually think about.”
In general, members of all three religions reported experiencing negativity on the job, social exclusion, stereotyping, and even harmful or demeaning comments. More specifically, both Muslims and Jews say they felt especially targeted by “anti-Islamic and antisemitic rhetoric tied to being seen as part of a larger group.”
Evangelical Christians, on the other hand, reported feeling “singled out” while discussing various topics due to their moral views.
“Sometimes they were called ‘Ms. Holy’ or ‘Holy Roller,’ and many evangelical Christians felt like they were perceived as being judgmental, narrow-minded and/or right wing,” Schneider adds.
Study co-author Denise Daniels, the Hudson T. Harrison Professor of Entrepreneurship at Wheaton College, adds that many Christians reported feeling isolated at work over their religion.
“This was due to their co-workers’ presumptions about the kinds of conversations or outside-of-work events they would want to participate in,” she explains.
Stigma around celebrating religious holidays
All three faiths reported feeling particularly uncomfortable at work if they asked to observe a religious holiday or wore religious attire at work, specifically citing “negative experiences” with both officer managers and direct co-workers. This was especially true among Muslims and Jews.
“Identity concealment is often used by people who are part of stigmatized groups,” comments study co-author Deidra Coleman, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. “It’s a proactive way to ‘manage’ anticipated religious discrimination, but it can have negative impacts on one’s mental health.”
According to principal investigator Elaine Howard Ecklund, director of RPLP and the Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences at Rice, this study should motivate employers to reconsider how they discuss, manage, and prevent religious discrimination in the workplace.
“I think a good lesson for human resources divisions is that making people feel welcome and comfortable in the workplace takes more than specialized foods and places to pray,” she concludes. “These day-to-day interactions among co-workers are incredibly important, but they’re harder to remedy without proper education. Workplace training must include exercises that specifically target all kinds of religious discrimination.”
The study is published in the journal Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World.