TechWatch: Creating the Right Mix

In this issue, my usual technology column is replaced by my views on the subject of religious expression in business. As an aside, these subjects are not completely distinct. Neil Postman argues in The End of Education, that technology itself is a god for some people:

“… people believe technology works, they rely on it, it makes promises, they are bereft when they are denied access to it, they are delighted when they are in its presence, for most people it works in mysterious ways, they condemn people who speak against it, they stand in awe of it, they alter their lifestyles, their schedules, their habits, and their relationships to accommodate it. If this is not a form of religious belief, what is? [p. 38].”

Religion and Business

In the West, there is a sharp distinction between a person’s religious faith and their work in business. Faith may guide the personal and family life, but when you pass through the door of the office it is “all business.”

Some erosion of this sharp line has taken place in America in the past decade or so, but the line remains brighter in Europe, in my observation. I was in a business meeting in Switzerland a few years ago with two other executives. Two of us introduced the topic of religion in business and our reasons for thinking it might be better to soften the line. The third executive commented, “Religion is a private, personal matter. We typically do not discuss this subject in a business setting.” Then he cautiously admitted he was a Christian, and stated that it was the first time in his life he had ever said such a thing in a business context.

Eastern religions are often more closely tied to culture, and hence are more integrated into business activities. Even in the U.S., some Eastern religious thought is often acceptable, where Christianity, Judaism, or Islam would be considered out of place. At the Boeing Leadership Center in St. Louis in the late 1990s, for example, meditation sessions were offered as an option for executives on Sunday morning, but there were no arrangements for attending traditional worship services.

Why Separate Religion and Business?

Where did the boundary between religion and business come from? In America it seems to be a natural extension of the traditional separation between church and state. This is supported by the concern that those who are not of the same faith as the leadership may feel like second-class citizens, or be treated unfairly in promotions and performance evaluations.

When I was at Boeing, a number of us were involved in a Bible study during our lunch break. One day a Jewish person on my staff approached me and said he was concerned that those who attended would get preferential treatment. I asked him to meet with me from time to time and hold me accountable to fairness. We developed a great relationship, but it is easy to see how this situation could have created a problem.

A few years ago I visited an East Coast software company where the leader was a strong Hindu follower. He worked hard to create a great work environment, but several people told me they found the environment oppressive because of the religious influences. I don’t know how they resolved this one.

The concerns over mixing religion and business don’t end here. There is always the potential of using business time to proselytize, which both expends company resources and may create a hostile work environment. That is the charge that has been raised at the Air Force Academy (see News Notables, p. 18). On the other hand, in Malaysia it is accepted practice for the government to require a Muslim to have a part in the leadership of a company.

There are significant differences in the various faith traditions. An individual’s view of God, the future, and fundamental life purposes are not the same across the world’s religions. It is natural for those who hold strongly to one religious position to want to convince others that they are right. This is the danger when allowing religious discussion in the workplace. There is a time and place for making such a case, but the workplace is not that place.

These arguments seem to advocate keeping the strong line between religion and business.

Three Counter-arguments

In spite of the fundamental differences of various religious faiths, there are remarkable similarities when it comes to principles for right and wrong for society or business. This is clear from the four religious perspectives presented in this issue. Built on this, I believe there are three counter-arguments in favor of embracing religious views in the workplace, with some careful constraints.

First, religion is the source of right and wrong for many people. A good argument can be made that treating religion as merely a “Sunday thing” or a “Saturday thing” encourages people to live a double life, with a dual worldview. This would help explain why some of the leaders of companies caught in ethical problems in recent years could also profess to be very religious people. Since ethics goes way beyond simply following the rules, and requires bringing a sense of right and wrong to many situations, it is important to encourage people to bring that source of right and wrong to the office.

Second, there was a time when workers were needed for their brawn rather than their brains. The famous Henry Ford quote came from this era: “Why is it that I always get a whole person when what I really want is a pair of hands?” But in today’s era of knowledge work, a company wants to engage the whole person, not just hands. When a person checks an important part of who they are at the door, it would seem likely to stifle innovation and insight as well.

Howard Gardner, in Changing Minds (p. 40-41) argues this point. He introduces the concept of a “ninth intelligence,” which he calls existential intelligence. He says, “The place of a candidate existential intelligence within business is intriguing … if people do not find meaning in their work lives, they are destined to be dissatisfied and—perhaps even worse—unproductive.” Gardner would not be regarded as a traditionally religious person, since he denies the existence of a supreme being, but he makes this argument from observation as a psychologist.

Third, drawing the line of ruling out religion in business is not as simple as it seems. Everyone is “religious” in some form, even the secularist. Roy Clouser builds this case in The Myth of Religious Neutrality. Allowing secularism as the only religious belief in the workplace creates problems of its own. Secularists can proselytize as enthusiastically as any other religious people, in my experience.

Creating Guidelines

In light of these difficulties and opportunities, I argue for the need to embrace religious expression in the workplace, with some careful guidelines. The goal should be to find the point between stifling this form of diversity and allowing this form of diversity to create a hostile, unhealthy workplace. This is in the spirit of Aristotle’s “golden mean.” David Gill, in his Ethix column on religion in business in July/August 2003, referred to this as “thick diversity” rather than “thin diversity.” In his discussion, thick diversity allowed individuals to bring their whole selves to work, while thin diversity allows only the parts of each person that surely would not bother any other person.

Larry Merk in the Forum (p. 3 of this issue) points to the government guidelines for dealing with religion in a government office place. These might be helpful to companies tackling this issue. Laura Nash in the IBTE Conversation (pp. 6-9) also identifies some helpful guidelines for dealing with religion and business.

An approach we took when I was at Boeing was to get a cross-section of people together to draw up guidelines for the open discussion of religion or politics. Both of these subjects had been formally banned from company bulletin boards or other material. The guidelines the group developed were quite simple and required the application of good judgment:

  • respect others,
  • don’t interfere with work,
  • sign and date all postings,
  • use good taste.

We found that rather than detract from our work environment, people were energized as whole people in the workplace. We had announcements for transcendental meditation sessions, Bible studies, political commentary, and the like. In spite of the rather vague guidelines, we did not have a single problem over a number of years.

This stands in contrast to a recent encounter I heard about. At the conclusion of a meeting, a person was asked if she would be willing to take on a particular task. She said, “I would like to pray about it.” After the meeting, the human resources representative told her this was inappropriate language for the workplace. Her witty reply: “Let’s just call it diversity, and get over it.”


Technology and the globalization of business are bringing people closer together from many parts of the world. Now, more than ever, it is important to give space to people to express who they are. This will help us create more understanding, more innovation, and more freedom in our fast-paced business lives. And it will also encourage us to bring our principles of right and wrong into the workplace. At the same time, we need to avoid the pitfalls of having some people believe they don’t fit, or a perception of unfairness. Even though it may seem easier to duck this issue, companies that address it will benefit.


Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990,
and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.