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Is Religion Unsafe for Work?

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Last week I had to get my mind off the San Bernardino shootings, and so I forced myself to watch a Vince Vaughn comedy on Xfinity called Unfinished Business.

I wasn't especially familiar with this film but as a brand Vince Vaughn is a certain kind of funny and I was sure that the time would produce the intended effect. It did.

In the movie he and his sidekicks need to sign a client or go bankrupt. Nothing can go wrong with this deal.

On the plane to Portland, where the deal is to be done, Vaughn turns to his sales director.

"Listen, Mike, when we get to the meeting, don't say your last name."

"What's wrong with my last name?" 

"It's distracting from business," says Vaughn.

"What's distracting about my name?" says the guy.

"Your name is Mike Pancake."

I saw this scene and couldn't help but laugh hysterically. It's funny on the plane and it's funny when of course the guy screws up and says "Mike Pancake." (And they don't get that desperately needed handshake, either — at least not yet.)

But what isn't funny about the bit is the subtle message "diverse" people get in real life: We want you, we welcome you, but please don't bring your "difference" to the workplace.

I remember my uncle worked for the U.S. government in the Senior Executive Service. An Orthodox Jew, he would not wear a yarmulke for fear of provoking anti-Semitism. 

When I joined the U.S. government I covered my hair in a religious way that was unusual for America (an Israeli type snood). One woman asked me, "Excuse me, I don't mean to offend you — but are you a Mennonite?"

My father's side of the family is Chasidish (Hasidic). I have never once seen a Chasid in the government. If I did, they were hiding it very well.

I have worked a few times with very religious Christians. One woman started a prayer group at work — they gave her a quiet room once a week on Wednesdays. But only after her boss almost nixed the whole thing.

And I have worked with Muslims as well. They are in a terrible situation, worse now than ever — pressured from all sides into an impossible vise. Walking on landmines, constantly.

You have to let people be themselves at work. You have to let them live their faith, if they have it. It's not just about obeying the law, where applicable; or doing better at business, because you will; or even because you're nice enough to "tolerate" others being "other."

It's right to support diversity, in the workplace and everywhere, because diversity is fundamentally human. If we turn against each other because of religious garb, we will turn against each other for every other reason under the sun, and then where will the turning end?

It is OK to live and let live — not everybody has to be the same, like Wonder Bread. 

People say that terrorists want to force religion on others. But I think it's the opposite: The freedom to live your conscience is precisely what they want to steal.

When we uphold religious diversity at work — including the absence of religion completely — we stop them.

Copyright 2015 Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. The opinions expressed are her own, and the content of this post is not intended to represent any federal agency or the government as a whole.

(Image via Sana Design/Shutterstock.com)

Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D., is a federal communicator with 20 years' experience in the private sector, academia and government. Best known for her work on branding, Dr. Blumenthal now focuses on the discipline of management, particularly the intersections between identity, culture and communication. She has lectured at a variety of schools including The George Washington University and the University of Maryland University College. In her spare time she is an independent community activist, focused primarily on raising awareness about child sexual abuse and domestic violence. All opinions are her own.

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