Letting employees express their beliefs while respecting others leads to more successful businesses, foundation president argues.
Freedom of religion is an important element of business success, Brian Grim says.
“When people feel free to bring their whole selves to work, including their faith, they feel they have a place in the company,” says Grim, president of the Maryland-based Religious Freedom and Business Foundation.
This promotes employee satisfaction, retention, and productivity, he said. It can also help businesses reach different markets.
Noting that the U.S. and Canada are very diverse in terms of ethnicity and religion, he argues businesses that want to reach different markets can prosper if they have employees from various ethnic and religious groups.
Successful companies “are welcoming and diverse,” he said, adding if a company is trying to reach Muslim customers, “you are at a disadvantage if have no Muslims on staff.”
For small companies, this can be a challenge, since the tendency is “to hire people you know. If the owner comes from one faith group, there is a tendency to hire only people from that faith group,” he said.
Doing that can make companies “insular, and out of touch with the communities and markets they want to serve and reach,” he added.
Making companies feel like welcoming places also means business owners and senior managers need to be careful about how they share their religious beliefs.
Things like “having a Bible on their desk or a Bible verse or painting of Christ on the wall” can “silently communicate to employees they need to believe in those things, too, if they want to advance in the company,” he explained.
“They might think the only way to progress in the company is to think or believe like their boss”—something that can make employees feel ill at ease and perhaps prompt them to leave.
Making employees feel welcome also means being alert to ways they feel discriminated against for their beliefs, said Grim, who grew up Baptist but became a Catholic in 1994.
For him, this means taking seriously reports that show many employees today say they experience religious discrimination in workplaces—things like not having their need for religious holidays accommodated or attending company events that did not include their religious preferences for kosher, halal or vegetarian options.
Helping businesses see the importance of religious freedom is the goal of the Foundation, which he founded in 2014.
The organization’s website says it is “dedicated to educating the global business community, policymakers, non-government organizations and consumers about the positive power faith — and religious freedom for all — has on business and the economy.”
Grim, 61, was previously employed as a senior researcher at PEW Research – a non-partisan, Washington DC-based think tank that does research about American attitudes on politics and major policy issues-where he specialized in global religious trends.
His research over the years has shown the important role religion plays in creating prosperous societies.
This includes how it contributes to peace—something that leads to better economic outcomes.
“Where there is freedom of religion there is peace,” he stated, noting peace enables business to flourish.
“Societies that promote religious freedom experience less persecution and conflict. Religious freedom is a key to prosperity,” he said.
For Grim, this is what he calls “The Religious Market Theory of Peace,” an idea he helped develop in 2014.
According to the theory, two characteristics associated with promoting peace are no restrictions on religious behaviour and no hostility towards religion.
For businesspeople, this is “particularly important because where stability exists, there is more opportunity to invest and conduct normal and predictable business operations, especially in emerging and new markets,” he said.
Religious freedom is “good for business,” he added, although he noted “maybe not for businesses that make bombs and bullets.”
In 2016, he co-authored a report which concluded that religion in the U.S. contributes $1.2 trillion each year to the economy—more than the combined revenues of the top 10 American technology companies including Apple, Amazon and Google.
The report received widespread media attention in the US and in the Guardian newspaper in the UK.
For many people, it was “shocking that religion has a positive effect in society and the economy,” he said of how things like religious healthcare facilities, schools, daycares, charities, media, businesses with faith backgrounds, the kosher and halal food markets, and local congregations contribute to the economy.
Showing the positive impact of religion on the economy and society, and the importance of allowing religion to flourish, is the goal of the Foundation.
Religious freedom also helps with innovation. According to a 2018 report by the Foundation, countries with high levels of hostility towards religion, and high restrictions on religious activities, are less innovative than countries that treated religion more fairly.
One indicator of this is whether a country’s top entrepreneurs stay in a country or leave. Grim found that the country losing the most entrepreneurs is China, which has many restrictions on religion, followed by Russia and Turkey.
For Grim, promoting religious freedom as a Christian all boils down to what Jesus said: “Love God and love your neighbour.” By allowing faith to flourish, “it contributes to wellbeing”—whether that’s for an entire country or the smallest business.
For more information about the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, visit https://religiousfreedomandbusiness.org/
John Longhurst is a Winnipeg freelancer writer, religion columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press, and part-time communications co-ordinator for Mennonite Disaster Service.