Talk Religion at Work? Go Ahead, Says Mason Researcher

Posted: July 9, 2014 at 5:04 am, Last Updated: July 11, 2014 at 8:49 am

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By Michele McDonald

While typically a taboo subject at dinner parties, religion and work may mix better than you’d think, says a George Mason University doctoral student.

It’s all about being honest about what’s important to you without veering into proselytizing, says Afra Ahmad, a current industrial/organizational psychology doctoral student and a 2008 George Mason psychology alumna. Ahmad recently presented findings from her study on the subject at the Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology’s annual conference in Hawaii.

religion study--afra ahmad

Afra Ahmad

From religion to sexual orientation, people wonder, “Is it better to be open or is it better to hide it?” Ahmad says. “What do you do?”

Ahmad has the answer: “Being your true self may be okay, and even help in some instances at work, such as when your identity has been revealed by someone else.” And that goes for issues other than religion, she adds.

The study’s premise: Send a team of researchers to six malls to apply for jobs at retail stores. Six research assistants—three men, three women, two Caucasians, two Hispanics and two Arabs—will meet with 239 hiring managers.

The set-up: While the job-seeker asks to fill out an application, a window-shopping research assistant “runs into” the job-seeker and asks if they can get together, or if the job-seeker has plans to go to church, synagogue or mosque. The job-seeker faces two choices: “conceal” by quickly brushing off the question, or “reveal” to the hiring manager how important religion is to his or her daily life. After each encounter, how the hiring manager reacts is noted by the job-seeker as well as the research assistant.

Ahmad and her research team were looking for the subtle clues of “interpersonal discrimination.”

“Although society does not accept formal discrimination, discrimination has now evolved into subtle interpersonal behaviors,” Ahmad says. This interpersonal discrimination can mean less eye contact, being less helpful, expressing negativity or just plain being rude. Separate trained research assistants also evaluated audio recordings of the interactions between the job-seekers and hiring managers.

The study’s results were surprising. When job-seekers acknowledged that religion plays an important role in their lives, the hiring managers expressed less interpersonal discrimination, as opposed to when religion was brushed off as too personal to discuss.

“You could tell the hiring manager was uncomfortable and wanted to get out of there,” Ahmad says of when religion was being suppressed.

But if the job-seeker revealed, the hiring manager became more engaged, offered helpful advice and acted friendly.

“If they were not trying to conceal their identity, then they were treated more positively; they were liked more,” Ahmad says. “If you’re trying to hide your identity, then people can pick up on this. It comes back to interpersonal trust.”

Ahmad and her team also followed up with another study that delved into what hiring managers were thinking. The results were consistent with the prior study—hiring managers indeed felt more comfortable and liked applicants who were upfront in showing that religion was important to them.

But it’s a fine line, Ahmad cautions. Co-workers who are viewed as trying to convert others to their religion may not be regarded so favorably.

Ahmad has made the interplay between religion and the workplace her area of study because she saw a need. She credits her advisor and Mason psychology professor Eden King for encouraging her. “We have a lot of information about race and gender in the workplace, but not as much about the intersection of religion and work,” says Ahmad, who is originally from Pakistan and practices Islamic beliefs herself.

Ahmad’s collaborators for this manuscript include King, who is her advisor, and colleagues Alex Lindsey, Isaac Sabat, Amanda Anderson, Rachel Trump and Kate Keeler.

Write to Michele McDonald at mmcdon15@gmu.edu

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