08/22/2012 12:39 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2012

Leading With a Human Voice: How to Talk About Religion at Work

Dear Liz,

I need to say something to the employees in my small business about everyone's not-favorite topic: religion in the workplace. We've had a few incidents and I've been asked to address what's OK and not OK to talk about here at work. I don't want people to feel like they can't talk about their faith in the office, but even more than that I don't want other people to feel preached to. Can you help?



Dear Chuck,

Here's a sample message that you can adjust for your situation. I bundled the topics of religion and politics together, since those two subjects share a lot of the same sticky/pressure-sensitive attributes.

Cheers -- Liz

Dear Acme Explosives teammates,

I hope your week is going well. From time to time I like to send out an all-company memo, to weigh in on culture-and-communication topics; here's the latest of those messages.

You may remember me writing to everyone when we started our "four tens" summer schedule last year, for instance. This time, I thought I'd address one of the stickier communication issues that can arise here at work, namely conversation about politics and religion.

If you are as old as me, you might remember the etiquette manuals that grandmas used to buy for young people when they graduated high school or college. When I was young, the etiquette guru was Emily Post -- today it might be Miss Manners, if anyone is still talking about these kinds of topics.

In every etiquette book ever written, I suspect, you will find this tip about polite conversation: they tell you to stick to topics like current events, popular culture, children, animals and the weather -- avoiding the two "danger zone" topics of politics and religion. There's a reason for that. Politics and religion are the two topics that tend to really bring out strong feelings in people, and those topics can create divisiveness among otherwise friendly colleagues.

We don't have to agree on anything at all here at Acme Explosives, except for our desire to make a great product and maintain a great work environment. We don't have to agree on this year's election, and we certainly don't have to agree on any particular religious point of view. But in order to maintain the great work environment that we're shooting for, we do need to have a shared understanding of what's OK and what's not in the realm of political-and-religious discussion at work.

I know that everyone who works here has a vibrant, busy life outside of work -- thank goodness! Our lives outside of work define us at least as much as our work does. Our commitments at home are where much of our mental and emotional energy go. We all have passions outside of work, and those passions make us the amazing, complex and talented people we are. I don't ever want Acme employees to check their personalities at the door when they come to work. I don't want you to keep quiet about the fact that you're a Yankees fan or a Trekkie or a Libertarian or a Lutheran. Those things are part of who you are. We hired you onto the Acme team, and we value every part of you.

That being said, there is something about political and religious conversation that is different from a friendly debate about the Red Sox and the Yankees. I don't know of any Yankees fans, even diehard ones, who would say to a Red Sox fan, "You should really switch your allegiance to my team." In politics and religion, those conversations ("why not switch?") happen all the time. So here's my idea: let's talk about our faith here at work, and let's talk about politics -- but let's agree to stop short of trying to convert anyone, or sell anyone on our point of view. Let's agree that whatever faith tradition (including none) or political convictions our co-workers carry, those co-workers are on their path, the right paths for them. No one is righter or wronger than anyone else in the arenas of religion and politics, here in our company.

Let's err on the side of caution when it comes to talk about politics and religion. Let's keep the level of respect for opposing viewpoints high. That means not pushing our religious or political views in anyone's face. That means not proselytizing, even if a faith tradition encourages its members to do that. If your faith team wants to grow its roster, that is great -- and/but they will need to grow the roster somewhere else, not here at Acme. Here, our highest priority is to make every person feel valued, and never sold to, or pressured, or (obviously) harrassed.

Nothing in our management practices, our messaging to employees or customers, or our workplace culture will favor any religion or political point of view above any other, apart from our belief in the golden rule and our commitment to ethical business. We may quote from the Quran or the Bible or the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe, or from Winnie the Pooh for that matter. We can find value in faith traditions, belief systems and ideologies all over the map. We believe in diversity as a core value, and if we ever fall down in our efforts to stay inclusive and respectful of our colleagues' choices and decisions, we (the Acme management team, and I) need to know about it.

If you need help saying to a co-worker, or to your manager, "Thanks, but I'm fine with my political stance/religious status" please let me or Carol, our HR manager, know. That way, we can support you in backing off an overzealous colleague without causing offense. We only hire folks here who are capable of speaking forthrightly, and politely, about things that need to be addressed, and the message "I'm not comfortable with this conversation, and would really like to get back to my work" is an important one for all of us to learn.

We are thrilled to have a team so full of conviction and passion for dozens of topics -- from Golden Retriever rescue to kids' soccer, vermiculture, Bible study and you name it -- but even more grateful to work among folks who understand that each of us is fine as he or she is, right now, and not in need of political or religious instruction or conversion.

As long as we respect the right of our colleagues to make their own religious and political decisions and follow their own paths, we'll keep the amazing culture that has carried us along all these years. Thank you so much for your tremendous work and enthusiasm, and please let me know how we can continue to get better at what we do in the marketplace and in our organization. Hurrah for Acme!


Chuck Jones
CEO, Acme Explosives