Up to 1 million people in Britain may have experienced workplace harassment, discrimination or bullying because of their religion or belief. That’s the story much of the media have generated out of a new study by ComRes Faith Research Centre. But the ‘Belief at Work’ polling found the vast majority of people (77 per cent) have never seen bullying, harassment or discrimination of any kind in the workplace. And only three per cent of British workers say they’ve been discriminated against in the workplace because of their religion.

It seems the report has highlighted another, possibly related, problem: It suggests religious workers have serious reservations about mentioning their faith while in the workplace. Polling revealed that 92 per cent of HR managers think people in their organisations can talk openly about their faith. But only 26 per cent of workers said that people in their workplace talk about their personal beliefs or religious traditions often or every now and again.

One person told researchers, “I was having training about coping with extremely stressful situations and, in the discussion, didn’t feel able to say that I usually pray at times like that. I thought it might make people feel uncomfortable.”

Another said, “In our office, everyone is very respectful of minorities and would never be disparaging about women or people with disabilities, but when it comes to religion it’s fair game. People can be very insulting, especially when they express it through humour.”

Katie Harrison, Director of ComRes Faith Research Centre, said, “An acid test for many workplaces is the Monday morning conversation. Do people always say what they did at the weekend, or do they leave out the part about pursuing a religious or belief-related activity because they feel uncomfortable to say so?”


A socially acceptable faith?

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron, recently told the Evening Standard that British people are afraid to talk about their faith in general. “In America you’ve got to invent a faith to be taken seriously; in the UK you have to pretend not to have one. You shouldn’t be ashamed.”

Farron has arguably experienced religious discrimination as part of his work. As political commentator James Mildred has noted, “When Farron became leader of the Lib Dems, the manner in which the media treated him was in the main, utterly contemptible. Remember how John Humphreys mockingly asked Farron if he prayed for divine guidance before making decisions? Behind it all seemed to be the presupposition that Farron’s Christian faith automatically disqualified him from being the leader of the Lib Dems.”

If Farron is correct then people could be deliberately hiding their faith in order to be taken seriously at work. Perhaps the recent string of high-profile cases where Christians have found themselves in trouble for sharing their beliefs is also leading more to remain silent about spiritual matters?

According to the campaigning group Christian Concern, Sarah Kuteh – a Christian nurse – was fired by the NHS simply for “talking to patients about her faith and occasionally offering prayer” (see News, p13). The group similarly supported Richard Page, a Christian magistrate who was disciplined by a Cabinet minister and England’s highest judge for opposing same-sex adoption. There was also the case of the Christian teaching assistant Vicky Allen who was taken to an employment tribunal for sharing her views on marriage with a pupil.

At the launch of the Speak Up! resource Mark Barrell, executive director at the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship, admitted: “Sometimes it seems as though we live in a society where it is increasingly difficult to share our faith, and hostility can seem not too far away when we do. There has also been the occasional situation when talking about Jesus has led a Christian into legal trouble.”

He continued, “Yet we also live in a society where the law provides very substantial protection for our freedom to speak about our faith in Christ, and it’s a society that is multi-ethnic and plural…The challenge for Christians is to have courage and certainty in sharing the gospel…We want to encourage people that we have more freedom than we often think.”

There’s no doubt that traditional Christian beliefs on marriage, family and sexuality are far less socially acceptable today than in years past. Are people of faith reluctant to voice opinions they know could be controversial?

Steve Clifford, the general director of the Evangelical Alliance, is eager that Christians share their faith. But he admits that methodology sometimes has to change. He recently told Premier Christianity: “We’ve got to get our body language right and our tone of voice right, as well as the words we speak…There is a new social orthodoxy. We’ve lived on the right side of social orthodoxy for centuries. Now as a Christian community I think we’re having to learn the lessons of how to live on the wrong side of social orthodoxy.”


Research findings

16% of British workers have experienced discrimination in the workplace. 17% say that’ve seen someone else experience discrimination.

92% of HR managers say people can talk openly about their personal beliefs or religious traditions. But just a quarter (26 per cent) of employees say that people in their workplace talk about their personal beliefs or religious traditions often or every now and again, while 35 per cent say that people in their workplace never talk about this.

37% of HR managers say they make provision for their employees to observe holy days and religious festivals. But only 19 per cent of workers say their employer does this.

91% of HR managers say they would be confident about responding to concerns about race and gender in the workplace. They were less confident in responding to concerns about religion (88 per cent) or gender reassignment (67 per cent).


Protecting free speech

While all are agreed that discrimination is wrong, there’s a fear in some quarters that countering the problem of workplace bullying could lead to a chilling effect on free speech. Writing anonymously on the Premier Christianity blog, a Christian lecturer at a secular university said, “It is wrong to expect your work colleagues to agree with you, never take the mickey out of you and never intellectually challenge your religious beliefs.

“I’d rather colleagues feel at liberty to take the mickey out of me because I’m a Christian than feel like they can never bring it up because I might get offended and contact HR. There may at times be a thin line between your faith being the punchline of a colleague’s joke and being bullied, but if Christians embrace a snowflake mentality we might soon see any kind of discussion on the ‘big questions’ disappear into a politically correct vacuum.”

Harrison said the study “isn’t about censoring people’s jokes” but instead should help people understand “what we believe is a really important part of our lives, and that’s not something that you would want to mock in somebody”.

Nevertheless, when explaining the types of problems religious people can face at work, Harrison said: “Often, what we find is that there’s quite low levels of just feeling annoyed, embarrassed or uncomfortable.”

It could be argued that Christians should expect to feel embarrassed and uncomfortable at times. Jesus never promised us an easy life.

Discrimination against Christians in the workplace appears to be a problem, but it’s not a widespread one – as this research proves. On balance, a more pressing issue facing Christians isn’t so much that we’re being discriminated against. It might just be that we lack the courage to stand out and be different.