Is it Taboo To Talk About Your Beliefs at Work?

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Last week I heard a story on NPR about academic scientists who felt they had to hide their religious views from their peers. Elaine Howard Ecklund, a Rice University assistant professor of Sociology and author of the book "Science vs. Religion," surveyed 1,700 scientists at elite universities about their belief in God. At the onset, she anticipated the same results you and I would have—that all scientists (especially professors at elite universities) would put God in the same belief-bucket as Santy Clause and Tinkerbell. To her surprise, she discovered that nearly half of them said they were religious. However, when she did follow up interviews, she found they practiced a "closeted faith."

"They just do not want to bring up that they are religious in an academic discussion. There's somewhat of almost a culture of suppression surrounding discussions of religion at these kinds of academic institutions."

Hmmm. However dysfunctional that may sound, I can actually understand how a scientist's confession of belief in God might be taboo at a secular university, since atheism is all the rage among scientific academia. The peer pressure must be enormous. Besides, it's nobody's business, what you believe on your own time. Why make a big fuss over your faith if it’s going to cause a Spanish Inquisition?

But it got me thinking about how this applies to business settings. As far as I know, there is no such unwritten standard that CEOs, Vice Presidents, and business leaders must adhere to some godless business or economic theory in order to be respected and effective in their jobs. Business is agnostic—it doesn't matter what you believe; it's just a spider web of organizations, people, and transactions operating within a range of economic, ethical, and regulatory parameters. One could make the case that, on the surface, one's personal beliefs are absolutely irrelevant in management, because religion has nothing to do with business. You’ve been hired to do a job, not announce your religious convictions or convert the CFO. Your statement of faith wasn’t listed on your resume, was it? Personally, I never thought it was much of a big deal whether or not I talked about my beliefs at work. When you work with folks day in and day out, after a while you develop personal relationships and some level of trust, so it's only natural that you are going to bring up bits and pieces of your spiritual life now and then—attending church, saying a prayer, your child's baptism, that sort of thing. It's part of being with people, and getting to know them. Frankly, I'd rather be known at work for the quality and integrity of my character than how much I blab about the bible. But I have some Christian friends in management positions who are downright skittish about talking too much about their faith. They don’t want to appear as if they’re proselytizing. And they certainly wouldn’t want to taint their leadership credibility by getting painted as a religious freak. But at the same time, they would like to integrate a more holistic sense of their spiritual self into their leadership roles. They don't want to hide who they really are. So it remains a touchy topic of discussion.

Steve Reinemund, former CEO of PepsiCo, understands this concern. He warns that the higher we go in an organization, especially a publicly held company, the more sensitive we must become about projecting our faith onto others. You can't come off like the only way to succeed on the team is to have similar beliefs as the boss. He recommends that managers be careful about how overtly they express their faith. But isn’t there a happy medium? Some place where we can be real, authentic, and transparent with others about our beliefs, while keeping our respected leadership reputation in tact? Without freaking out the troops? David Miller, former investment banker and Director of Princeton’s Faith and Work Initiative, tells a story in the book "Our Souls at Work" about the response he gets from those in the corporate world at cocktail parties or social events when he tells them he is in “the God business.” Inevitably, he says, that statement is followed by silence. Then questioners ask, "What do you mean?" He goes on to tell them, "I used to be a partner in an investment bank, and now I think about the roles God and theology have in our daily work lives.” David says that in many cases, if the listener doesn’t run off to the bar for another drink, the result is a conversation that lasts all evening.

I have this strange feeling that there is actually some kind of profound, bright longing within our business communities for deeper connections. We are, after all, more than just the sum total of our tasks and transactions. Each of us are spiritual beings, searching for meaning and purpose in what we do every day. Who knows. Maybe I'll start a secret club where business leaders meet to talk about how our faith meets up with our work. No one will know what we're really up to. But soon, everyone will want to join.

Are you a closet Christian at work?

Do you think it is appropriate to have spiritual discussions in a work environment?

Photo by Colin Stebbing. Used with permission.