Q: Does it matter if I wear religious clothing in my workplace?
A: The decision to wear express religious beliefs through appearance (whether it is a hijab, yarmulke, cross necklace, or even grooming practices like piercings, tattoos, wearing long hair or a beard) can be a highly sensitive subject, and varies highly on the attitudes in your workplace, the laws of your country, and the nature of your work. As a researcher in psychology, religion, and fashion, I can give some tips that may be useful to anyone deciding whether to wear religious items to work.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a lawyer and none of this constitutes legal advice (if anyone’s thinking about suing their employer over this).
Why would I wear religious clothing to work?
There are a number of reasons why one might decide to wear religious clothing to work.
- Just as a man whose favorite color is red might choose to incorporate red into his wardrobe, a man may decide to express his religious beliefs with religious clothing.
- Religious duty.
- Some religions require the use of religious clothing. For instance, some interpretations of Orthodox Judaism require men to wear a kippah (or yarmulke) at all times.
- Cultural identification.
- Religion is more than just beliefs about the afterlife or God. Religion can also be a way of connecting with a larger culture or history.
- Connecting with and signaling to others.
- A person may decide to wear religious clothing in order to send a message to others (both co-workers and clients) who might believe the same way.
- A Roman Catholic may decide to wear a Catholic-style crucifix necklace in order to connect with his Catholic co-workers.
- Reminder of values.
- An item may help remind a person of their deep values.
- For instance, Protestantism has historically been associated with hard work in one’s personal life and occupation.
In one study from 2011 (Reference: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103110002301), a group of Canadians and Americans were given a sentence unscrambling game. Some of them were given sentences with words related to Protestant religion (i.e., heaven, salvation, almighty, redeem, angel, righteous, saved, and god), and some were given non-religious sentences.
After the sentence unscrambling, the participants were given a difficult anagram task in which they were given words and asked to use the letters of those words to build new words. This is used in psychology to measure how hard people are willing to work and persist at a difficult task.
The results showed that Americans who were given religious words in the first task worked harder on the second task.
These results did not hold true for Canadians.
The researchers suggested that this is the result of a “Protestant work ethic” that is commonly associated with the USA.
In other words, in some cultures, a person might remind themselves of religious beliefs to cause themselves to work harder.
These are all positive reasons for expressing your religious beliefs through clothing. However, there are a number of reasons why doing so might cause problems in the workplace.
- Religious discrimination does exist.
- There is a wealth of psychological research that indicates that religious discrimination in the workplace does exist. In the last decade, the number of religious discrimination lawsuits in the US has increased. For more on this, see https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10869-013-9290-0
- Research also shows that discrimination – sometimes that we’re not even aware of (based on sex, weight, race, etc.) – can influence whether people are hired for a job. For a discussion of this, see https://www.jstor.org/
- Putting those together, it’s reasonable to assume that publicly proclaiming affiliation with a religious group may cause people to stereotype you and treat you more negatively.
- Religious expression may be bad for business or work relationships.
- Openly expressing religious beliefs could possibly drive away certain customers or subtly influence business partners or coworkers.
- In cases where you are representing your employer (for instance, a salesperson), religious clothing may imply that your beliefs are representative of your employer. This may or may not be the case!
- In some countries, the right to religious expression is not protected by law.
- For instance, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the United States was created to ensure that employees are not discriminated against based on their religion. However, employers have considerable leeway in drafting dress codes to restrict what employees can and can’t wear, as long as these dress codes are consistently enforced and do not unfairly discriminate against a certain group based on religious beliefs. For more on this, read: https://journals.lww.com
- Some medical
- Some religious clothing might pose a hazard in the workplace.
- Necklaces or long pieces of cloth that dangle or drag can pose dangers around heavy machinery or places where food is prepared.
- Some items of clothing may not be appropriate for a healthcare setting, based on the likelihood of transmitting bacteria or interfering with work.
Q: So should I wear religious items at work or not?
A: As you can see, the answer to this is more complicated than just yes or no. Here are some questions that might make this decision easier:
- Are you trying to get hired?
- Unless you’re applying for a job at a religious organization, I’d suggest keeping your religion to yourself as much as possible in the highly volatile and high-pressure situation of a job interview.
- What message are you trying to send?
- If you’re not sure what you’re trying to accomplish or what message you want to send to others, maybe you should sort this out first.
- How important is it for you to express your religious beliefs to others in your workplace?
- Is wearing the religious item a requirement in your religion, or is there some leeway in when/where you can wear it?
- What effect are you hoping to have by communicating your religious views?
- What is your company’s dress code policy?
- Is the company dress code firm and fair according to the laws of the country you live in? If so, you should probably pay heed to it.
- What is your business culture and atmosphere?
- It’s important to get a feel for the culture and atmosphere of your job before you send any strong signals. Is it a tight-laced organization that discourages free expression (imagine a strict law firm, for instance)? Is it a laid-back group that values free expression (imagine a laid-back software design company where employees work mostly on their own).
- Have you talked to your employer?
- If you’re on good terms with your boss, it’s possible he or she may appreciate you bringing this up.
- Will my clothing or item pose a health or safety hazard?
- If your religious clothing or item increases the risk for others (safety, sanitation, etc.) maybe you should reconsider where you work or whether you wish to wear the item.
- Am I willing to assume some risk in expressing my religious views?
- Expressing that you are a member of a religion is “letting the cat out of the bag” at work – it’s not going back in! There are a lot of psychological factors involved with categorizing, stereotyping, and prejudice when it comes to being a member of a religion. If you’re a member of a minority religion (or one that is commonly discriminated against), it’s possible that people will respond negatively to you if you publicly express membership in an organized religion. Are you willing to accept that risk?
I’m not going to answer this question for you. Wearing religious clothing is a very personal decision and you have to make the decision with your own system of values. However, make your decision thoughtfully. There are positives, negatives, and uncertainties involved – just like in many other areas of life!