My Salam

Why is faith taboo in the workplace?

Working in office

Pic: Getty Images


In March 2018, I conducted a two-day masterclass in Kuala Lumpur with the CEOs and HR directors of eight major state-owned companies on the topic of leveraging faith to boost employee productivity and engagement.

One of the most animated discussions we had was on the role of faith in the workplace. The room was divided, with some arguing that there’s no place for faith in the workplace (beyond accommodating people’s religious beliefs concerning clothing, food and rituals). Others believed that faith should play a more significant and more central role in the workplace, especially regarding values and ethics.

But regardless of which group people were in, they both agreed that the topic of faith and spirituality was taboo in the workplace, and no one really likes to talk about it.

Being the curious instructor that I am, I asked them why. Here are some of the reasons they came up with:

1.People use faith and spirituality as an excuse to waste time or be lazy: One employee would go on long “prayer breaks” and not be back for almost an hour. Another would fail to submit work on time and claim that they had a headache from fasting. The list goes on.

2. It creates distance between people: In a large multi-faith workforce, people look for “in-groups” and cliques they can associate themselves with. Faith can become a divider, causing people to connect with people of their own faith but ignore everyone else.

3. Religious topics are sensitive due to the emotional attachment to them: Sometimes people within the same faith group might have passionate opinions about certain religious matters, and things can get heated very quickly if arguments erupt around religious topics.

4. It doesn’t fit the secular nature of the workplace: The corporate world is usually extremely secular, and it’s not “professional” to talk about faith in the workplace.

5. Some religious opinions might encourage prejudice, especially on gender issues: Some people hold particular religious views that impact the relationship with staff of the opposite gender.

6. It might lead to conflict and discrimination: If an argument does erupt around faith or religion, it might lead to conflict and a potential bias in hiring, firing or performance reviews.

Looking at the list above, it might seem a good idea to stick to the status quo and just not discuss faith in the workplace. However, I believe that as long as we do so, we’re missing a significant piece that may solve the great puzzle of the modern workplace, which, as Tony Schwartz, President of The Energy Project puts it, is “how to tap into more of people’s potential so they can perform sustainably at their best.”

Whether we like it or not, faith, religion and spirituality are a central piece of people’s lives. It is a widespread, significant and impactful element of employees’ lives. It cannot be ignored. For many people, it is their “ultimate concern”. Additionally, according to the Pew Research Center, 84 per cent of the world’s population is religiously affiliated, and this is expected to rise to 87 per cent by 2050.

Remember, there was a time when gender and race issues were a taboo topic too, but many corporations have been able to embrace these discussions and have realized the value of bringing employees’ whole selves to work. I believe faith and spirituality are going through their moment now. Major companies are already setting up faith-based employee resource groups to help their spiritual employees feel welcome and open to talking about their identity.

We now need to go the extra mile and move from just “accepting” faith in the workplace to leveraging faith as a healthy antidote to the emotional, spiritual and professional costs of the corporate world.

Mohammed Faris is an international coach, author, and speaker who helps executives, professionals, and entrepreneurs rebalance their lives spiritually, physically and socially to achieve peak performance and live meaningful lives. He’s the founder of and author of The Productive Muslim: Where Faith Meets Productivity.

© 2018 All rights reserved


Author Profile Image
Mohammed Faris