Have faith—just not in the office

March 28, 2017

Business faculty member uses stigma theory to explain why we don’t talk about religion in the workplace

You may recognize the old adage that at the dinner table, you should avoid talking about religion and politics. Workplaces have long taken up this piece of advice—exchanging the dinner table for the boardroom table—and for his PhD thesis, Assistant Professor Bruce Thomson (above) wanted to find out why.

Bruce teaches human resources management, leadership, organizational behaviour and change management courses in MacEwan University’s School of Business. Before becoming an academic, he operated his own businesses for years. Curiosity about others’ religious beliefs and how, as a businessperson, to develop an understanding of religion in the workplace made him want to learn more.

“When I got involved in academics, studying religion in the workplace just seemed a natural lead, because we can't deny it—religion is a huge part of our lives,” he says.

He started with interviews and focus groups, and what he discovered was akin to the three monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. “Pull the word ‘evil’ away and put ‘religion’ in because people did not want to talk about religion, especially religion in the workplace,” recalls Bruce. “I thought it would be worthwhile pursuing because how can we as individuals take off a part of us, hang it on a coat rack and then go to work?”

It turns out people have three different methods for dealing with their spirituality in the workplace. One is to avoid the topic at all costs. “If somebody asked about your religion, you would say, ‘Boy those Oilers played well last night.’” The second is to hide your religion, if it differs from that of others in your workplace. The third method is to integrate, and Bruce says there are different strategies of integration, ranging from only speaking up about religious beliefs when asked, to actively promoting one’s belief system.

In his thesis (which inspired his book, Religion and Organizational Stigma at Work), Bruce explored the idea that people don’t want to talk about religion at work because there is a stigma attached to talking about personal beliefs. The idea comes from Dr. Belle Rose Ragins’ research in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community using Erving Goffman’s work on “stigma theory,” which concludes that people attach negative perceptions to somebody because of a single characteristic.

“For example, there could be positive aspects to a stereotype,” explains Bruce. “With a stigma, there are no positives. It’s always negative.” Stigma theory is also dependent on the environment. “A Muslim in New York after 9/11 has a stigma attached to them, whereas a Muslim in Saudi Arabia does not. A Catholic in New York does not have a stigma attached to them, but a Catholic in Saudi Arabia does. So location played a big role in the idea of stigma, and how we as a society view individuals.”

The concept for Bruce’s next co-authored book pertains to how other stigmas (related to illness and disability, for example) play out within workplace organizations. But the first step to figuring out how to have conversations around topics that have stigma attached is to take a good, hard look in the mirror.

“We have to understand our own biases,” says Bruce. “If we don't understand, then we allow those biases to play out wherever we are.”

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