Posted: 26 Mar. 2018 15 min. read

Workplace religious displays and perceptions of organisation attractiveness

In today’s diverse global workplace, what role does religious expression play in creating an inclusive culture and building an organisation’s image?

Progression in global connectivity has resulted in an international workplace with people from diverse religious backgrounds. For many people, religion is fundamental in shaping their sense of self (Gebert et al. 2014). With individuals spending a large portion of time at work (Gallup 2015) a person’s work life is also central to their sense of self (Benefiel et al. 2014).

As such, organisational policies that govern dress code and acceptable behaviour can have significant influence on employees’ sense of belonging. In a competitive marketplace, it is important to ask: how does the presence and inclusion of religious expression in the workplace impact an organisation’s attractiveness?

Despite significant debate in this field, the need for evidence-based research on the impact of religious expression on organisational attractiveness is still unmet. In an effort to bridge this gap, Professor Chockalingam Viswesvaran, David Beane and Ajay Ponnapalli from Florida International University explored the conflicting dynamics of religious and professional belonging.

Specifically, the researchers examined impact of religious verbal and physical religious displays in the setting of a job interview. Ultimately it was found that, while individuals value their ability to express their religion, they may not appreciate such displays from those who represent an organisation.


The aim of the research was to explore how individuals outside of an organisation perceive that organisation when its employees demonstrate their religious beliefs. Specifically, this dynamic was examined in the setting of a job interview.


The approach in this study was to compile a list of potential religious displays or symbols and collect reactions to those displays in simulated job interviews. This involved two distinct studies:

  1. A Pilot Study: 40 Industrial/Organisational Masters and PhD students compiled a list of possible religious displays/symbols from which two researchers summarised 27 scenarios that may be experienced by a job candidate at an interview.
  2. A survey: Two survey studies were undertaken with psychology students aged 18-33. Respondents rated each scenario in terms of likelihood of religious display taking place and the attractiveness of an organisation as a result of the display. The survey was conducted with two samples to assess the generalisability of the results:
  • Sample 1 included 453 participants of which 77.3% identified themselves as Christian, 9.3% as non-Christian and 13.4% had no religious association.
  • Sample 2 included 299 participants of which 70% identified themselves as Christian, 7.2% as non-Christian and 22.8% had no association.
Key Findings:

Overall, it was found that the presence of any of the religious symbols negatively affected organisational attractiveness and very few were considered likely to occur in practie. Specifically, the findings were categorised as follows:

  1. Most scenarios were rated unlikely to occur:
    Four scenarios were rated most likely to occur: displaying a Christian university certificate, wearing a cross around the neck, pictures of child’s baptism, quoting bible verses in the interview, etc. Interestingly, 26 of the 27 scenarios had an average likelihood rating below the median. This suggests that, in general, people expect a religion neutral workplace.
  2. Presence of any religious display reduced rations for organisation attractiveness:
    Presence of any religious display reduced ratings for organisation attractiveness. This suggests that, while people valued one’s right to express their religion, it was not welcomed when representing an organisation. Furthermore, such religious expression displayed by a recruiter may potentially be taken as an organisational characteristic (Rynes et al.1991).
  3. Shared experiences impacted organisation attractiveness the least:
    Scenarios where an experience was shared (such as a photo of a child’s communion) received the least negative rating. This suggests that shared experiences are a means of expressing one’s identity and create a notion of relatedness that erased religious undertones (Byron and Lawrence 2015).
  4. Christians responded less negatively to most scenarios:
    As part of the ancillary analysis, the researchers found that there was a significant difference in the organisation attractiveness rating between Christians and non-Christians for 22 of the 27 scenarios. However, there were five scenarios that were deemed equally unattractive by all respondents: having a bottle of holy water on desk, wearing a rosary, bible on desk, statue of the Virgin Mary on desk, and pictures of Christian Saints on the wall.

Global interconnectedness has placed diversity management as a fundamental element in organisational development. While this study has some limitations, for example focusing only on Christian displays, using a sample size of almost entirely Millennials and hypothetical scenarios, it plays an important role in contributing to the evidence base in this field. In future studies, it would be worth exploring the impact of such displays in a more religious country, as the United States is more secular.

This study highlights the complexity of this area and the tensions that exist in inclusion practices. For example, while five scenarios were equally unattractive to all respondents, the difference in the responses between Christian and non-Christian to the remaining 22 scenarios suggests that subtler religious signals make those who share that faith feel more included. The question therefore becomes: How to signal that an organisation is inclusive without excluding others? This questions reflects the broader conversation around the tensions of diversity and multiculturalism and the challenges that diversity practitioners face when seeking to enable self-expression, while also creating a climate for inclusion (see, for example Ferdman, 2017).

It is important to note that this study is not implying that organisations attempt to stop any religious expression, regardless of whether they elicit more “negative” responses. As summarised quite neatly by the researchers: “Religious expression is everyone’s right, and while this is a great sentiment, the real trick is in finding a way to make that right a reality for all parties.”


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This blog was originally authored by Naima Khan.

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