Religious Discrimination

Religious Discrimination

Religious Discrimination

Religious discrimination and diversity are realities of the modern workplace. In a recent survey of people in the United States, over 90 percent professed a religion, representing more than 1,500 religious denominations. Indeed, during the past decennia, the religious makeup of the workforce in Western countries has changed considerably due to increasing globalization, immigration trends, shortages in the labor market, and the reintegration of the older and often more religiously observant workers in the workforce. Religious beliefs are not simply turned off when a person enters a workplace. Ignorance of religious practices may lead to misunderstandings and conflicts among employees and foster prejudice and discrimination. In the United States, claims of workplace intolerance on religious grounds presented to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission climbed about 30 percent from 1992 to 2000. Similar trends are reported in Western European countries. The Dutch Equal Treatment Commission, for example, reported twice as many complaints about religious discrimination and harassment at work in 2003 compared to 2002.

Organizations dealing proactively with religious diversity at work may do so for several reasons. First, conflicts in the workplace can adversely affect job performance and lead to turnover. Valuing religious workers in a way they feel accepted and included in the workforce may foster a more productive and profitable work environment. Second, the growing diversity of the workforce necessitates an openness to diversity in the recruitment and selection process in order to attract and retain the best employees.


Religion can be defined in many different ways and from several different viewpoints, including philosophical-theological (Plato, Kant, Foucault), sociological-political (Durkheim, Marx), historical-anthropological (Malinowski, Levi-Strauss), evolutionary (Bellah, Tylor), psychological (Allport, Freud, Vergote), or legislative (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Religious Freedom Restoration Act). Put differently, how one defines religion depends on the particular context in which religion is considered. For a consideration of religious discrimination in the workplace, the legislative and social science perspectives are of particular interest.

From the legislative perspective, the protection of employees’ religious rights while at the workplace falls under the concept of freedom of religion, as protected in international human rights law (cf, the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion and Belief, 1981; the Oslo Declaration on Freedom of Religion and Belief, 1998). In the United States, this protection is mostly derived from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and guidelines promulgated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Although different accents can be found in national and international acts and laws, they all formulate some perspective on religion, including nondiscrimination principles as well as varying forms of occupational exceptions.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Guidelines on Discrimination Because of Religion (29 CFR Part 1605-U.S. federal legislation), religion is defined as both beliefs and practices that are sincerely held. For example, an employer may not refuse to hire an applicant because of that person’s Islamic faith (belief). Also, an employer may not fire a Muslim because of religious practices, such as breaks for prayer time during official working hours (practice). Moreover, these beliefs and practices should be sincerely held, which means that U.S. law is not confined to organized religions such as Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. Wiccans, Pagans, and Atheists are legally protected against religious discrimination in the workplace as well.

Employers should reasonably accommodate the religious observances (beliefs and practices) of their employees unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship” upon the employer (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964). For example, a company may legally reject an applicant who refuses to cut his beard for religious reasons because of commercial and sanitary concerns (EEOC v. Sambo’s of Georgia, Inc.). However, where appropriate, employers should consider accommodations to prevent or resolve religious work conflicts by offering flexible scheduling of working hours, by permitting employees to swap shifts, by relaxing grooming or clothing requirements, by transferring employees to different locations or functions, and by permitting unpaid or accrued paid absence leave due to religious needs. If there is a business necessity for certain hours or other requirements, the employer should explore the employee’s accommodation needs without making any explicit inquiry or reference to religious forms as a basis of a potential conflict. Nevertheless, occupational exceptions are allowed. Religious schools, for example, may impose religious requirements upon the hiring of teachers and administrators.

From a legal perspective, religious discrimination at the workplace can be defined as taking two forms: (1) refusal to employ or accommodate employees based on sincerely held beliefs and practices (disparate treatment discrimination) and (2) a treatment on the basis of inadequately justified factors other than religion that disadvantages members of a religious group (disparate impact discrimination). Disparate treatment discrimination occurs when a member of a religious group is treated less favorably than a similarly situated member of the same or another religious group. It may take the form of quid quo pro harassment when an employee should submit to religious practices in exchange for job benefits or to avoid adverse actions. Far more commonly, however, is a second form, namely the hostile work environment. Disparate impact discrimination occurs when a behavior or practice that does not involve religion directly has an adverse impact on members of a religious group without a sufficiently compelling reason. An example is firing employees who do not dress professionally when such a policy results in proportionately more dismissals of members of certain religious groups. These practices are unlawful unless a compelling business-related reason can be supplied to justify them. This might be the case when the wearing of religious symbols, haircuts, or dress may endanger employees’ safety or sanitary conditions at the workplace. From a legal standpoint, it always remains open to the employer to argue that discrimination can be justified for business-related reasons. Moreover, in some instances, organizations are legally allowed to require codes of conduct and occupational requirements that discriminate against (prospective) employees on other grounds. Complaints that are not considered discrimination from a legal point of view may still be perceived as discriminatory from the individual’s perspective.

The legal definition includes actions the organization might take (e.g., prohibiting the wearing of religious clothing) in the name of customer preference. The definition further implies that people may discriminate against adherents of other faiths as well as of the same faith. For example, an employer may decide not to hire an applicant of the same faith because the applicant appears not to be a regular churchgoer or performs poorly when being questioned about religious matters during the interview.

From the perspective of the social sciences, increasing attention has been paid to religiosity and spirituality at the workplace. Although related to religion, scholars overall recognize that spirituality differs from religion in that it is not necessarily formal, structured, or organized. Spirituality is broadly described as the deeper, more mysterious part of being, referring to some interconnectedness with the universe. Religion, on the other hand, is considered as a more institutionalized way through which a person’s spirituality is manifested.

From a social science perspective, discrimination is often discussed in terms of overt or blatant discrimination and subtle discrimination. Examples of blatant religious discrimination are personal belongings being destroyed because of religious beliefs, not being allowed to have some time off from work to observe religious holidays or prayer breaks, not being allowed to wear certain forms of clothing, including head covering, and being rejected from selection on the basis of religious background. Most discrimination, though, is more subtle and indirect. Examples of subtle religious discrimination are supervisors keeping employees with faiths different from their own less well up to date about business. Being mocked or ridiculed because of religious beliefs or practices can take both overt and subtle forms.

Antecedents and Consequences of Religious Discrimination

The psychological literature on discrimination provides models to clarify when individuals will perceive discrimination, including antecedents of discrimination, coping mechanisms, and consequences. While it is beyond the scope of this entry to review all of the literature, presented below are some key conclusions regarding religious discrimination in the workplace.

In general, the visibility and perceived controllably of a stigmatizing attribute will affect whether an individual is discriminated against, with greater visibility and greater perceived controllability contributing to greater stigmatizing treatment. Religion is not typically a visible characteristic but can become so in the workplace by an individual’s appearance (wearing religious symbols or clothing) and actions (praying during breaks or at meals). As the psychological research predicts, greater religious discrimination occurs when religion is made salient. Discrimination may also be more likely to occur when religious practices are seen as controllable (e.g., praying, fasting) and therefore able to be suppressed in the work environment.

While no systematic research has been done on motives for religious harassment in the workplace, the social-psychological literature has pinpointed prejudice and stereotypical beliefs as determinants of discriminatory practices in general. Other potential determinants are dissimilarities in beliefs, anxiety of the unknown, competition between groups, self and group preservation (e.g., need to uphold individual or group status, dominance, or power), and personality characteristics (e.g., ethnocentrism, authoritarianism, dogmatism). Furthermore, research on diversity climates in the workplace indicates that certain organizational contexts may promote greater tolerance of a diversity of viewpoints and behaviors and greater support for individual differences.

Even within the same situation, some people may feel more discriminated against compared to others. For example, individuals who are high in religious group identification may attribute negative treatment by employees to religious discrimination when situational cues to religious prejudice are ambiguous, where those less identified would be more likely to do so. Treatment may be seen as justified rather than attributed to prejudice, depending on an individual’s belief in the dominant ideology (e.g., belief in a just world), stigma consciousness (expectation of being stigmatized), group identification, and other personal characteristics. A strong belief in a just world, for example, may lead members of low-status groups to fail to consider treatment as injustice.

Research on perceived discrimination has shown cognitive, affective, behavioral, and physiological consequences, affecting such factors as the victims’ social status, psychological well-being, physical health, and performance. Theories on stress and coping argue that the relationship between personal/ situational determinants and outcomes of perceived discrimination is mediated by the degree one’s identity has been threatened or challenged. Religious identity threat results when a stigma-relevant stressor is potentially harmful to one’s religious identity and exceeds one’s resources to cope with the demands. Religious stigmatization may also lead to identity challenge instead of threat. Antireligious slurs, for example, may not be perceived as threatening when one has sufficient coping mechanisms (being assertive, being optimistic, having social support, etc.). Coping mechanisms can be emotion focused (e.g., praying) or problem-focused (e.g., adapt to dress code). They may result both in disengagement strategies (e.g., absenteeism, turnover) and in engagement strategies (e.g., complain, claim, or challenge religious harassment). Whether one challenges religious discrimination may not only depend on the resources available but also on the perceived social costs associated with making a discrimination claim. Complaining may affect interpersonal relationships, the way others perceive the complainant, and the complainant’s self-esteem. Consequently, people may be motivated to deny, minimize, or ignore religious discrimination to avoid additional devaluation or exclusion. Just as some individuals may be more prone to discrimination than others, a single person may respond differently to religious discrimination in different situations. For example, one might deny outlets of religious harassment on a train or in a shopping center but might not deny them at the workplace. Clearly, a person-by-situation approach is needed to fully understand the determinants and effects of religious discrimination on individuals.


To date, religious discrimination in the workplace has mostly been considered from a legislative point of view. Remarkably, almost no systematic, psychological research on religious discrimination, including its forms, antecedents, and consequences, has been conducted. Empirical studies have shown spirituality as an effective mechanism for coping with occupational stress. But what if these beliefs become a source of occupational stress themselves? Most chapters or books on workplace diversity and workplace spirituality/ religion only slightly touch upon spiritual/religious diversity and discrimination at the workplace. However, in line with the growing cultural diversification of the workforce and the political climate after September 11, 2001, it can be expected that religious diversity and discrimination in the workplace will become a growing concern in the future. Just as with cultural diversity issues, employees, managers, customers, and shareholders will encounter religious diversity much more frequently, both inside and outside organizations.

Attempts to deal with religious discrimination in the workplace have highlighted its complex, subjective, and multifaceted nature. In courts of law, discrimination decisions are often based on comparing testimonies of both observers and victims. Social psychological research has shown that victims and observers may use different decision rules in deciding whether or when an action reflects discrimination (e.g., gender, age). Future research could investigate how this applies to perceptions of religious discrimination. Understanding how perceptions of religious discrimination are formed may especially be relevant to understanding and dealing with subtle forms of discrimination.

Religious diversity within the workplace can be viewed negatively, as some empirical studies show more stress, more turnover, and less interpersonal attraction in culturally diverse working groups. The negative view on religious diversity has even fostered the idea of a complete secularization of the workplace as a way to minimize potential religious frictions. However, people may not leave their religious beliefs at home. Banning any form of religious expression at the workplace is unrealistic. Interestingly, organizational research has also shown some potential benefits for organizations such as enhanced creativity, innovation, and reduction of groupthink in culturally diverse working teams. In the same way, while religious expression might sometimes cause problems, at other times it might be very helpful (or at least inconsequential) for the organization. In the future, exploring the consequences of religious diversity in the workplace and assessing the contributors to religious discrimination are likely to be the focus of greater research attention.

See also:


  1. Bennett, G. F. 2001. “Religious Diversity in the Workplace: An Emerging Issue.” Diversity Factor 9:15-20.
  2. Douglas, S. D. 2004. “What Is Religion for Purposes of Employment Discrimination Cases?” Employee Relations Law Journal 29:35-45.
  3. Gearon, L. 2002. Human Rights and Religion: A Reader.Brighton, England: Sussex Academic Press.
  4. Giacalone, R. A. and Jurkiewicz, C. L. 2003. Handbook of Workplace Spirituality and Organizational Performance.Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.
  5. Major, B., Quinton, W. J. and McCoy, S. K. 2002. “Antecedents and Consequences of Attributions to Discrimination: Theoretical and Empirical Advances.” Pp. 251-330 in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 34, edited by M. P. Zanna. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
  6. Major, B. N. and O’Brien, L. T. 2005. “The Social Psychology of Stigma.” Annual Review of Psychology 56:393-421.
  7. Pargament, K. I. 1997. The Psychology of Religion and Coping: Theory, Research, Practice. New York: Guilford Press.