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Tackling the sacred cow of religion and the workplace

March 21, 2018
Social impact
  So-called freedom for some amounts to discrimination for others


A teenager attempts to take legal action against his Catholic school because it bans him from the student representative council and from overseas excursions because he is not Catholic.

This may seem like a clear-cut case of religious discrimination, yet his lawyer tells him his case is unlikely to succeed. His school is allowed to treat him as a second-class citizen.

Religious organisations in Australia are, uniquely, allowed to discriminate on the basis of their beliefs, which means they can refuse to hire, promote or teach people who do not share those beliefs.

In practical terms, it means faith-based organisations may discriminate against atheists, people from other religions, single mothers, and gay people.

This right of religious organisations to discriminate is one of the 'sacred cows' of human rights legislation. While it has been regularly challenged in a series of government inquiries into religious freedoms, it remains enshrined in law.

Director of UNSW's Kingsford Legal Centre, associate professor Anna Cody, would like to see religious organisations become subject to the same anti-discrimination laws as the rest of society (except for the appointment of ministers of religion or priests).

"Those religious organisations are receiving public funding, so they should be bound by the same law that everybody else is in a democratic and secular society, rather than being allowed to discriminate," says Cody.

The case of the teenager at the Catholic school formed part of the legal centre's submission to Philip Ruddock's review of religious freedom, which is due to report at the end of March.

Lobbying and power bases

Australian law prohibits religious organisations that receive public funding from discriminating in the provision of aged care.

But those organisations are free to discriminate against prospective employees and people accessing services in education, adoption, employment assistance and child welfare services, according to the review submission from the legal centre, which has a specialist anti-discrimination practice.

Faith-based organisations have told the Ruddock review that if they were forced to hire people who did not share their convictions, the essential character of their organisations would be threatened.

Several major Christian churches have argued for a national religious freedom Act to further protect that right to discriminate, overriding any anti-discrimination laws in the states and territories.

'[Religious-based discrimination] is huge issue. And it is a growing issue because there is that increasing outsourcing of government services'

– ANNA CODY

Cody points out that faith-based organisations are some of the biggest employers in Australia. They include not just the administrative and religious offices, but also schools, hospitals, employment agencies, welfare agencies, aged care facilities and charities.

The Catholic Education Office employs more than 10,000 people in the Sydney Archdiocese alone and around 20% of all Australian students attend Catholic schools.

Religious organisations account for the lion's share of the welfare sector – representing up to 70% of community services – their reach enhanced by the federal government's outsourcing of services, such as employment agencies, during the past 20 years.

Religious-based discrimination is a "huge issue", says Cody. "And it is a growing issue because there is that increasing outsourcing of government services."

Anti-discrimination legislation varies between the states and territories, but NSW and South Australia offer more freedom to discriminate than the others, she says.

Religion is not a protected attribute under discrimination law in those states, which means it is not subject to the prohibition of religious discrimination under the federal Fair Work Act.

According to Cody, religious lobby groups have historically had a strong influence in NSW. "It is all about lobbying and power bases," she says.

Bucking the trend

Australia is generally regarded as a tolerant society and, of 200 discrimination complaints to the Kingsford Legal Centre in 2016, only four related to religious discrimination. In the two years to July 2016, the Australian Human Rights Commission (which only conciliates matters) received just 26 complaints on this ground.

Cody says these low numbers may not just reflect Australia's tolerance, but also the fact that legal remedies are rarely successful.

According to the Pew Research Centre, the world is becoming more religious because people with a strong religious background tend to have bigger families.

'It doesn’t matter if people are religious or not, if they are put into groups, they can be biased against another group'

– SUZANNE CHAN-SERAFIN

However, Australia appears to be bucking the trend. There was a spike in atheism across a decade, growing 11 percentage points to 30% of the population in the 2016 Census.

This may have been artificially boosted by a change in the Census question format which could have encouraged people who were lapsed to nominate as 'no religion' rather than use their religious heritage as their answer.

Nevertheless, only 37% of Australians say they are 'religious', according to a Win/Gallup poll.

Immigration has had an impact with a growth in numbers of people from non-Christian religions. Breaking it down, 52% of Australians identify as Christian (22.6% Catholic, 13.3% Anglican), 2.6% Muslim, 2.4% Buddhist, 0.4% Jewish.

Suzanne Chan-Serafin, a senior lecturer in the school of management at UNSW Business School, says the impact of religion in the workplace needs more examination, especially with the increase in religious diversity in workplaces.

She believes managers should accommodate religious workers, as long as their requests are reasonable and do not pose a threat to other stakeholders and the survival of the organisation.

Cody says her legal service has advised a Muslim man who was alleging discrimination because his employer would not provide him space to pray at work and sacked him. He would have only needed to pray twice during work hours – for about six minutes per session.

"Less than the time it takes to go for a coffee run," notes Cody.

Holier than thou

Chan-Serafin believes treating employees with dignity and respect creates a positive climate for inclusion, benefiting employee satisfaction and reducing levels of conflict and staff turnover.

But studies about the impact of religion at work show that religiosity in the workplace can be a double-edged sword. While faith can make people more hopeful, agreeable and conscientious, expressing the values of honesty and forgiveness, it can also make them more intolerant of others, says Chan-Serafin.

In a research paper, How Does Religion Matter and Why? Religion and the Organizational Sciences, Chan-Serafin and her co-authors put forward the proposition that the character strengths of religious workers may predispose them to believe they are more virtuous than their co-workers.

This 'holier than thou' attitude could lead to overly harsh assessments of others, setting the stage for the psychological phenomenon known as the Golem effect:

"Managers with negative judgments in hand have low expectations for their subordinates and, therefore, may withhold emotional and professional support from them; the subordinates' experiences are limited and their confidence lowered, leading to poor performance," explains Chan-Serafin.

Religious faith may also blind people to the failings of others who share their beliefs. If the leaders of faith-based organisations think their members more virtuous than they really are, they may be overly trusting and expose themselves to a higher risk of fraud.

The research authors warn about the potential for individual members of a religious organisation to be more prejudiced when it comes to racial or ethnic minorities, gay men and lesbians and other 'out group' members.

However, Chan-Serafin says any group can be prey to prejudice against others.

"It doesn't matter if people are religious or not, if they are put into groups, they can be biased against another group. It is not necessarily just religion, it could be by nationality as well," she says.

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