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Religion for Corporate America

by George H. Gallup Jr.

Last week, former Enron executive Michael Kopper admitted to wire fraud and money laundering and agreed to hand over $12 million in illegally obtained profits, to be returned to Enron investors. WorldCom has now admitted to billions of improperly accounted-for dollars. With each new development, such corporate scandals heighten attention to the roles of ethics and values in the workplace.

Is Religion a Part of Today's Workplaces?

A recent Gallup survey* shows almost two-thirds of people in the workforce think that expressions of religion would be either tolerated, 38%, or encouraged, 27%, at their place of work. The remaining third (34%) say such expressions -- such as invoking the name of God or saying a prayer before a meeting -- would be discouraged.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say that religion would be encouraged in their workplace, by a margin of 32% to 23%. Coinciding with their standing as Bible Belt dwellers, employees in the South are somewhat more likely than people in other regions to say that expressions of religion would be encouraged at their place of work -- 34% versus 24% in the East, 25% in the Midwest, and just 20% in the West.

Public Opinion on Religion in the Workplace

With many U.S. citizens losing money in the stock market and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan detecting an odor of "infectious greed" in the corporate air, one might expect that many Americans would welcome expressions of religion in the workplace as a possible deterrent to impropriety.

Indeed, a strong majority of employees interviewed in this survey appear to be open to a wider toleration of faith at work. Eight in 10 (78%) say they personally believe that open expressions of religion should be tolerated (50%), or not only tolerated but also encouraged (28%). Just one in five (21%) say such expressions should be discouraged.

David Miller, a former IBM executive who is now working on his doctorate in social ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary, founded the Avodah Institute to help people and companies make sense of the intersection of business and faith. "Most people spend more time at work than anywhere else, certainly than at church," Miller said. "People are no longer satisfied to compartmentalize their faith life from their work life; they want to be the same person seven days a week. They don't want to leave their soul in the company parking lot."

But some employees feel more cautious about the subject. Jeanie Freeman, an employee of a vacation rental agency in Hilton Head Island, S.C., agrees with the 34% who believe that religion should be kept out of the workplace. "It makes me uncomfortable," Freeman said. "I think that bringing religion to work can make people with different ideas about religion [agnostics or atheists] feel like they don't fit in."

"The situation is further complicated," Miller said, "by the fact that employers are often unaware of their legal obligations and employees are often unaware of their legal rights, as regards to expressions of religion at work. As such, many managers tend to shy away from religious questions viewing it as a Pandora's box, thereby missing the deep ethical linkages between religious teachings and business behavior." Indeed, he adds, many deeply religious people prefer to express their religious identity through their character and the quality of their work, and tend to avoid public displays of religiosity.

Key Points

This survey was undertaken at a time of deep public concern over the scandals uncovered in the corporate world. Another recent Gallup poll showed that 77% of the public feels that "top executives of larger corporations taking improper actions to help themselves at the expense of the corporation" is widespread. Although it is difficult to know how the corporate scandals have influenced public opinion on religion in the workplace, it seems that most Americans workers feel that religion should play a role at work, or at least that bringing religion to work should be tolerated.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 584 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 5-8, 2002. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4%.

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