How To Maintain Your Religion While Running A Business

If you’re a person of faith running a business, you’ve likely thought about how your personal and professional commitments may come into conflict. You may even have wondered:

  • Is it possible to hold onto your religious principles in the face of your business obligations?
  • Can you work with other businesses with different religious perspectives?
  • How should you treat religion in your own workplace?

All of these questions have answers, and ensuring a clear understanding of your own principles—and how they’ll impact your decisions going forward—can help you to plan for the future. 

You’ll need to understand your own core beliefs and how they intersect with your business; discussions around faith, and making space for it in the workplace, can help to build strength out of difference rather than igniting conflict. It’s your job as the boss to see that this is how your workplace operates.

Personal faith

The place to start is with your own faith. What principles can you bring from your religious practice that will help to guide your business practice? For Christians, for example, ideas such as personal integrity and financial management with a basis in scripture may offer guidance in your business.

You can also find inspiration and strength in scripture, when you need it. A bible verse guide can help you to find passages that apply to the particular challenges that you’re facing, or the specific occasion you’d like to mark. Drawing strength from something personally important, like religious faith, is critical for the success of any enterprise.

Here are three things that can help you to guide your business, strengthened by faith:

  • Integrity—Your sense of personal integrity, honesty, and commitment in how you treat those who you work with will often be rooted in your faith. They’re also generally good business practices in the long run.
  • Finances—Maintaining balance in your finances will allow for a more steady footing, and may help you to meet any religious obligations around lending.
  • Shared Staff Values—This does not mean that you and your staff need to share the same faith, as will be explored below. It means that you need to understand and articulate the core values that you draw from your faith. It will also dictate the kind of treatment that you think you owe your staff.

On the whole, speaking with a spiritual advisor about how your professional and religious obligations are likely to intersect is a good idea. Do this early and you may be able to clearly articulate your core values to yourself, your employees, and your customers.

Differences in faith between businesses

Differences between faiths in a business, or between the leaders of different businesses, do not need to cause problems. In fact, they can serve as a catalyst to build trust through open, honest discussion.

No matter what, it’s good to recognize that they will come up. Only around 16% of people list themselves as religiously unaffiliated on a global scale, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center poll. A little under one third of the world’s population said they were Christian, and around 23% that they were Muslim. 

This difference can be productive. Some research has suggested that while a common faith may create a sense of camaraderie in the businesses world, there can be positive outcomes to inter-faith negotiations too. 

In a 2019 study, researchers found that negotiations where the parties were of different faiths could actually go better than those between counterparts who shared the same faith.  Interactions between people of different religions could, for example, offer a chance to discuss new perspectives. Talking about religious difference can actually be an “icebreaker”, which can lead to increased trust in the relationship and a better negotiation. 

These kinds of discussions can help the involved parties to understand their own views better, as well as to find common ground with peers.

Faith in your business

While it might be counterintuitive, some research has shown that rather than kicking religion out of the workplace entirely, or having an explicit faith shared by everyone at each level of the company, there can be a more productive middle ground. Opening up space for religious diversity at work, it seems, can be beneficial. A study published in Harvard Business Review in December of 2020 looked at a German bank as a case study, and what they found was very interesting. 

To begin with, the study’s authors point out that ignoring matters of faith and personal belief in the workplace seems like an increasingly impossible strategy. Practices like yoga and mindfulness can often have a deeply personal meaning to people. For many religious people, “their faith is associated with deeply held values that inform their actions and behaviors at work as well as their personal lives.” Plus, in a world where more than 80% of people have some form of religious affiliation, asking people to ignore such a critical part of their lives in the place where they spend most of their time can seem a little harsh. (1)(3)

Still, when people speak openly about things in which they believe deeply, conflict is bound to emerge. It could be the case that what someone believes in personally collides with their professional obligations. In such cases, employers must negotiate the balance between non-discrimination, the service they provide to their customers, and maintaining fair treatment of all their employees. 

Tackling these issues is important. If an employee is forced to continually provide a product or service that goes against their personal convictions, the strain can be too much. They may lose motivation, or even quit. So, what can a company or religious institution do to keep its mission intact, while safeguarding the happiness of both customers and employees? (3)

“Elastic Hybrid”

What the study’s authors observed in one case—that of KT Bank, a new Islamic financial institution in Germany, was that being strategically ambiguous positioned the company well to succeed. The ultimate result was what they called an “elastic hybrid.” Despite the apparent difficulty, the bank seemed able to balance its own values with those of their customers and employees as well. 

Islam has several teachings that contradict common practices in finance, like charging interest or engaging in certain forms of speculation. This makes some kinds of loans, as well as derivatives trading, difficult. Still, the leaders of KT Bank, a group made up of Muslims as well as people of other faiths, and no faith, adopted a flexible approach that made space for religious diversity. 

Importantly, they did not hide their faith, but presented it in a way that left room for interpretation among employees and customers. The goal, ultimately, was to create an organization that could reconcile competing convictions held by various stakeholders, in order to “find unity in diversity.” For instance, they used iconography and slogans that could have a religious interpretation as well as a secular one. Rather than obscuring their commitments, this openness to multiple interpretations gave more people something that they could relate to. 

The company also created physical space, which helped to make room for religiously diverse practice. A prayer room was created and made available to employees for whatever purpose they wished to use it. Several employees reported that this was the first time they’d had such a space at their workplace, and felt grateful that the organization had made room for them. Even for those without a need for daily prayer, this could be a space of quiet reflection, to destress. Either way, it allowed employees to choose at which level to engage their spiritual selves at work. 

Final thoughts

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to holding onto one’s religious beliefs in the workplace; it is a constant negotiation between personal beliefs, what the company requires of employees, and what customers expect. What is striking in the findings of the KT Bank study is that the authors conclude by saying there may be more strength in flexibility than in rigidity. They contend that “A perfectly aligned organization with clarity and focus at every level may not be as adaptable as organizations that make room for, and even celebrate, ambiguity.” (3)

In your own business, you’ll need to balance your personal beliefs, the needs of your customers and employees, and what the business needs to grow most efficiently. Striking that balance can be tricky, but it isn’t impossible. It requires reflection, and an understanding of how your principles interact with everything else that is required of you.

It could help to be open to frank conversations with others, to disagreement, and most importantly, to finding room for common ground and compromise as you discuss these important issues. Not everyone will agree, but if taken seriously and handled with care, this may be a source of strength instead of weakness. Success in business depends on having principles and clear vision. In our increasingly complex world, draw strength from your faith, but make sure to keep the importance of flexibility in mind.

Adam Hansen

Adam is a part time journalist, entrepreneur, investor and father.