Column: Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

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[Join us in welcoming Manny Tejeda-Moreno, our new monthly columnist. Manny is a professor and social scientist. His scholarship has been focused in research methods, leadership and diversity, and he has a masters degree in psychotherapy. Manny was born in Cuba and and was raised as a child of Oyá. He is a witch and has been in the Pagan community for almost four decades.]

[Credit: Nicolas Raymond/Flickr]

[Credit: Nicolas Raymond/Flickr]

While attending a Pagan conference recently, I was reminded of a behavior that, while is second nature at Pagan gatherings, seems starkly odd in a modern hotel: the no photography rule. Of course people take pictures of one another often, though usually with the implied consent of the person being photographed. It is not uncommon for that implied consent to be present among friends with the assumption that the photographs will be shared with some discretion. But the reason for this rule among Pagans is that the group is collectively concerned about the disclosure of their religious identities.

A few months ago, I published an article on the discrimination of Pagans in the work environment based on my own observations and predictions from theory. Social Psychology, particularly one theory of stigma, tells us that when personal characteristics are not obvious- like eye or skin color for example- the act of disclosing is not only a matter choice but also a process of assessing the consequences of that disclosure. The theory suggests that each of us has an identity that fulfills the expectations of a social setting while possibly simultaneously having an actual identity that is different.

Religion is like that. Unless there is an outward sign of religious affiliation, such as a hijab, one has to look for clues about a person’s faith.  In North America and much of the West, society presumes that individuals are Christian, the most common mainstream religious affiliation. It is, of course, an inaccurate presumption; but the point is that most people generally assume that individuals are not different from those who are the most common. The ability to control disclosure combined with a lack of obvious clues permits an individual to “pass” as mainstream.

For me, this raised questions about the experiences of Pagans in the workplace. Pagans are, essentially a rarer find in the social fabric of faith where the most common thread is Christian. In other words, when an individual says “I’m Christian” in the United States, most people think some variant of “you and 260 million other Americans.”  With less common faiths, such as Judaism, individuals may be marked by stereotypes, but are also recognized as present in the mainline religious experiences.

However, if someone says “I’m a witch,” most people – almost exclusively those unfamiliar with Paganism — are just left with Halloween imagery or TV episodes as a way of understanding the statement. That left me with questions about the kind of discrimination potential that could occur when someone discloses their Pagan faith. In other words, what happens when someone’s actual identity collides with the identity society expects us to have?

The workplace is one area where there is a potential for such a collision to happen and a setting where many of us can experience vulnerabilities because it represents the source of our income. It is also a setting where individuals are trusted with authority and agency on behalf of a company or a profession. And finally, a place where we are forced to interact with many people who may have very different religious, political or cultural associations from our own. The workplace was of particular interest because it’s both a place where we have to go as well as a place where many of us manage our identities more carefully.

[Photo Credit: Lars Plougmann/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Lars Plougmann/Flickr]

I set out to collect two kinds of data for two related studies. The first study focused on compiling stories from Pagans about work. The objective of this study was to compile evidence that many of us have anecdotally about workplace discrimination and, depending on the responses, to create categories from experiences of discrimination.

For this study, I asked for volunteers to be interviewed about these work-related experiences.  The careers of the participants varied from lawyers to store clerks; from park rangers to physicians. It was a fairly good cross-section of different ages and educational levels with a similar mix of backgrounds and Pagan identities, though the most common was, not surprisingly, Wiccan.

Despite being sampled from many backgrounds and essentially unconnected from one another, all participants reported a process of “coming out” as Pagan.

They reported that being Pagan must be a managed identity, one that could seriously affect them with work or clients. The majority of individuals reported being anxious about disclosure as well as reporting micro-aggressions from colleagues who knew about their beliefs. Micro-aggressions are form of interpersonal discrimination that forces an individual to confront how they are different from social norms or behaviors. These micro-aggressions ranged from the very subtle, such as being invited to join Christian-centered prayers before meals or making statements that a Pagan worker can “hex” the boss; to the more serious forms of overt interpersonal aggression like “praying” for the Pagan participant’s salvation.

The majority of participants also noted that they kept track of who knew what and often were very cautious about preventing disclosure to certain individuals, particularly supervisors. This is a behavioral strategy for controlling disclosure that we term hypervigilance.  Across all interviews, a consistent pattern emerged that many individuals were careful to manage their Pagan identity at work, especially among Pagans who had responsibilities over others such as teachers, physicians and psychologists, or were in fields demanding a “rational” persona like engineers and scientists.

As a follow-up to the interviews and for the second study, I gathered some quantitative data using surveys about backgrounds, experiences of discrimination, the amount of satisfaction with work and jobs and the amount of tension work causes for individuals. For this larger study, I invited individuals – both Pagans and non-Pagans from different faith lists – to complete the survey. About a thousand invitations were randomly sent and about one-third responded by completing all the questions on the survey.

The findings here were also fairly consistent. Pagans who kept their identity secret were more than twice as likely as members of Abrahamic faiths (Christians, Jews or Muslims) to experience direct verbal threats or other forms of verbal violence. Those Pagans were also twice as likely to experience other forms of indirect exclusion such as being offered emotional support from a colleague, socializing after work, or receiving advice or help colleagues with work and about 20% more likely to report being dissatisfied with their jobs.

The last two in particular, represent some real deviations from our expected findings in workplace settings. We know many people are dissatisfied with work for example, but we expect that dissatisfaction to be spread along a normal curve in the mainstream population and not be over-reported by one specific group. However, when the analyses were conducted with Pagans who were open at work about their faith, the numbers doubled. They were 4 times as likely to experience all forms of interpersonal violence and indirect exclusion. There was a significantly greater dissatisfaction at work, and significantly increased tension in the workplace. Finally, about a third of Pagans reported being outed at work; and also reported the most serious consequences.

The study also revealed one other interesting finding. In this sample, Pagans happened to be more educated than their Abrahamic counterparts. And yet, Pagans reported earning, on average, 25% less income than their Abrahamic colleagues. This finding is, regrettably, also consistent with theory: a minority group will still experience income challenges despite having equal or better levels of education.

So what does all this say? Well, the data are what the data are. As scientists, we’re trained never to go beyond our data. Having said that, the findings do open up questions about how discrimination is occurring in our community. It raises social justice questions about how we – as a collective, big umbrella group – promote our identity and manage prejudice against us. It also questions how we engage with the broader community in efforts to educate others about Pagan beliefs and identity with the explicit expectation that religious discrimination has no place in our society.

Conducting this research reminded me of a story Pagan Elder Margot Adler once told about her experiences at NPR when she applied for host positions. She spoke about coming out as a Pagan, and how managers were scared of her identity enough that they blocked parts of her career. This research, I hope, is an extension of her legacy. It should serve as a reminder and cautionary tale that the rules we have – such as the photography that I mentioned earlier – have a real purpose. They are there to safeguard the community, because it is still a misunderstood, minority religion and culture. But foremost that we understand ourselves within the social construct of a Pagan identity- which for all the commonness it may have to us- to the mainstream where we remain still deliciously radical.


Author’s Note: The reference and original article is “Skeletons in the Broom Closet: Exploring the Discrimination of Pagans in the Workplace”, Journal of Management and Spirituality, 2014, July 24, DOI: 10.1080/14766086.2014.933710.