Why is there a need for faith in the workplace?

An expert on religious pluralism in business talks about how to live one’s faith in the workplace

PROVO, Utah — Several years ago, Paul Lambert, a Latter-day Saint, was in a business meeting with two colleagues — an evangelical Christian and a Catholic. 

The Catholic shared that his father was in a difficult health situation, and the evangelical colleague asked to pause the meeting to pray for him.

The three in the past had been open about their faiths. They disagreed on some doctrine but knew their faiths were important to them.

The evangelical colleague offered a prayer, and the meeting continued.

Today, Lambert is an expert on religious pluralism in the workplace, and the BYU alumnus consults businesses and government agencies — including Fortune 500 companies such as Google, American Express, American Airlines and Dell — on faith and belief accommodation.

As the featured speaker during a lecture sponsored by the Brigham Young University Marriott School of Business and the Wheatley Institute on Thursday, April 13, Lambert shared the above experience as one example of the enrichment that can happen when individuals have the space and environment to authentically be themselves — including their faith — in the workplace.

In addressing BYU’s future professionals gathered in the N. Eldon Tanner Building on the Provo, Utah, campus, Lambert discussed why faith accommodations should matter — to individuals and to businesses — and what individuals can do to contribute in their future workplaces.

Why it matters to individuals

To begin his remarks, Lambert showed the vision, mission statement and core values of the BYU Marriott School of Business, which all revolve around faith in Jesus Christ. 

That’s probably one of the reasons his listeners chose BYU, Lambert noted. “But some of you might be wondering, what does my faith look like when I go into the business world? What does my faith look like in the workplace, or is it something I need to leave at the door?”

Lambert started and ended his remarks with what he called his thesis statement: “The best professional you can be is the best disciple of Christ you can be.”

Religion, or faith, is a lens through which individuals see the world and an important part of who they are. “Our faith is not compartmentalized, or it certainly shouldn’t be,” Lambert said. “Faith is not just for church, it’s not just for home, it’s not just for BYU. It’s for everything that you do.”

Individuals will be prepared to contribute fully in the workplace only when they can bring the entirety of who they are — including faith and belief — into  their professional settings, Lambert said. “That same principle holds true for your Muslim colleague. The best professional they can be is the best Muslim that they can be. Or for your Jewish colleagues, etc., etc., etc.”

Paul Lambert, an expert on faith and belief in the workplace, speaks during a BYU Wheatley Institute lecture at BYU in Provo, Utah, on April 13, 2023. | Tanner Guisinger, BYU

Why should it matter to businesses? 

While religion and religious affiliation have shown some decline in the United States and parts of Western Europe, globally the opposite is true, Lambert said. Nine of 10 of the countries with the fastest growing economies over the past six years are all religious-majority countries.

So if a business is thinking about global market strategy, or the best return on investment, or where the emerging markets are, it needs to understand that much of the talent and many of its customers are from religious markets. 

“They view the world through a religious lens, and a diverse religious lens. That’s really important to understand,” Lambert said.

At the same time, data shows that the businesses that have higher levels of religious accommodations also have higher recruitment, retention and innovation, which are key bottom-line indicators of success, Lambert said.

In relation to employee performance and being able to bring one’s whole, authentic self into the workplace, many individuals and businesses understand this around issues of gender, sexual orientation and race. “There are wonderful initiatives within the business world to help people feel more authentically who they are so that they can fully contribute, so they can meet their full potential.”

However, many are not used to including faith and belief in those initiatives and discussions in a professional setting. “But we need to change that,” Lambert said. “We need to add that to our discussion around diversity, and around DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion).”

‘All boats rise’ effect

Some businesses worry that making religious accommodations will have an inverse effect on commitments and accommodations around gender or sexual orientation. The data, however, suggests the opposite. 

“There’s actually an ‘all boats rise’ effect, that the higher levels of religious accommodation that you have, the more likely you are to have higher levels of accommodation in other areas.”

Lambert said his experience in consulting companies has shown the same thing. “When they lean into these different areas of accommodation, actually, all of the areas of accommodation benefit because the principles at play are not siloed,” he explained. “If I learn to be accommodating and welcoming to a person of faith, I’m inherently learning the principles that will allow me to be helpful or accommodating and welcoming to someone of a different gender or a different race.”

These principles simply make a company a better place to work, Lambert said.

McKinsey Health Institute recently published a study about employee health. Many businesses think in terms of physical health. “But there are different layers to health,” Lambert noted. In the McKinsey study, the majority of surveyed workers listed spiritual and social health as extremely or very important.

Companies want healthy workers because “if you have a healthy worker, they’re focused on the work. If you have an unhealthy worker, they’re focused on their health.”

The overall health of an employee includes physical, mental, social and spiritual health, Lambert said. “If we’re spiritually unhealthy, we’re not ready or able to contribute fully.”

Do companies actually care?

Lambert shared examples of several Fortune 500 companies that are investing in religion and faith accommodations for their employees. In each case, the CEOs or business owners aren’t trying to advance religion. “It’s a business case,” Lambert said, where they recognize the role religion plays in the lives of employees.

One prominent company began creating interbelief networks, or IBNs, where people from different faith communities could come together. Employees reported how these networks were helpful to understand where teammates were coming from and what motivated them, which helped them become a better team. 

No one said these platforms were helpful for proselytizing or making sure everyone agrees, Lambert pointed out. “This isn’t about ‘I’m right, you’re wrong.’ This is about understanding, building trust, building capabilities so they can better work toward the joint goal that they have as a company.”

Employees who participated in the interbelief networks also reported it was fun and exciting. “You feel good when something that’s so important to you is celebrated and you’re being told, ‘It’s OK for you to live that way here.’”

Tools for the workplace

Lambert challenged the future professionals to be prepared to communicate the case for religion in the workplace. “Articulate why it’s important for you and all of your colleagues of lots of different faiths and beliefs, why it’s important for all of you to be able to live out your faith at work, and why it’s important for the business to do that.”

Next, Lambert challenged his listeners to think about and articulate to themselves why their faith makes them a better professional. “Write it down. It’ll help you. You need to understand why your faith is contributing to your potential as a professional. … These will be two very valuable tools to you as you move forward.”

Lambert then asked, “What are you going to do starting today to create a more accommodating environment for you and those that you work with?” 

Start practicing now. Talk to a roommate about what being a Christian or a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints looks like to them. “Wouldn’t it be great if I said to [my roommate], ‘I’m interested in understanding your experience as a Christian, so that I can better understand and accommodate you, so I can better meet you where you are’? … You’ll learn amazing things,” Lambert promised. “You’ll learn that there’s a great amount of diversity, even within members of the Church.”

Changing the world

Through the years, Lambert said he has been disturbed by the contentions and divisions arising among people who disagree with one another.

In getting his master’s degree and doctorate and pursuing his career as a business analyst, Lambert realized the workplace is a great medium for practicing the civility and tolerance so needed in today’s society.

Why? First, rather than people’s homes, churches or communities, their workplaces are likely the most diverse places they will encounter with regularity in their lives, with “lots of different viewpoints, lots of different ideas, lots of different truth claims.”

Second, it’s where individuals spend a lot of their time. And third, employees at a workplace are all working toward a common goal or purpose. They have a product they have to create or a service they have to provide, and they have to “figure it out.”

“My big idea was if we can experience the benefits of religious pluralism and religious freedom in the most diverse place — where we spend so much time with each other — if we can experience those benefits and understand how they add value to our lives, surely we’re going to take them outside of the workplace, we’re going to take them into our communities, we’re going to take them into our states and our nation and in the world,” Lambert said. “I think we can change the world.”

Lambert told of talking to an engineer who is an Orthodox Jew. One morning at work when he was doing his morning prayers, this man found one of his Muslim colleagues also doing morning prayers. The man thought to himself, “Where else in the world can I go and be next to my Muslim colleague, who’s praying to his God, and I’m praying to mine, and we’re colleagues and we’re friends and we can do this and it’s OK?”

This was at a business, Lambert noted. “That’s what we can get to if we apply these kinds of principles.”

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