Career Advice

5 Tips To Keep Religion In Its Place In The Workplace

Your mother told you not to discuss religion, politics or sex in public, at the dinner table, with strangers, etc. In today’s litigious, culturally diverse and oh-so-politically correct society, that advice seems better than ever. Yet discussions of holidays, holiday plans and associated symbolism creeps into many work conversations. Right now, religion tops the list, with the advent (pun intended) of Easter and Passover. While some may find it hard to get worked up about fluffy bunnies and Peeps, is it ever OK to discuss religion in the workplace?

I approach this by separating the secular aspects of holidays from religious observation. Holidays have many meanings; pick apart the history of the spring holidays, and you’ll find they have many cultural and symbolic meanings, often tied to celebrations of changes in season, fertility rituals, feasts and so on. Easter and Passover are celebrated around the time of the spring (vernal) equinox, when the sun tilts on its axis towards earth and warms us up. Who isn’t a fan of sun and warmth after a dark and chill winter?

Back to religion in the workplace. While it’s never a good idea to provoke or offend work colleagues intentionally, it’s not a good use of work time to try to determine where each person’s boundaries are. Here as in much else in life, err on the side of judgment and good taste: it’s ok to discuss the secular aspect of your religious celebrations and plans, and not ok to discuss the religious observances tied to holidays. Rule of thumb: the personal practice of religion should be separated from secular events when in mixed company.

Here are five pointers for sharing an appropriate amount of information about your holiday plans, without veering over the cliff of religious expression.

  1. Don’t initiate conversations about observation of religious holidays – but be prepared to share top-level, family-style plans. Say you host an annual Easter brunch: it’s OK to talk about decorations, menus and even to mention how you keep nasty Aunt Ethel sedated with martinis, but hold off on a blow-by-blow description of your church or temple’s holiday décor or service times.
  2. Don’t bring religious symbols to work. No sheaves of palms or crucifixes allowed. Bunnies, ducks, candy and other items shouldn’t offend anyone.
  3. If co-workers want to get worked up about the commercialization of the holidays, head off the potential argument by focusing on the family context of the event. Holidays are a time for family gatherings – whether you like all your family members or not. Tie your holiday talk to family themes, avoid the religious symbolism. No one wants to talk about crucifixion anyway, at least no one you’d feel safe alone with.
  4. Don’t decorate your cube, office or desk with items of religious symbolism. Bunnies, ducks etc. are symbols of nature and OK, especially rendered in dark chocolate.
  5. Know when to shut up. If you sense someone becoming agitated by holiday talk, avoid discussing holidays around that person, or just stop and listen to what they say, with respect. You don’t have to agree, but give people the respect of undivided attention. And obviously don’t engage in an argument.

Holidays, generally speaking, are times of celebration. It’s ok to celebrate with family, but keep it on the low-down at work if your gut tells you this. And remember: you don’t have to share all the details of your life, at work, on Facebook, anywhere. Know the boundaries between personal and private. It’s more than a holiday lesson. It’s your career.