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Ethics in the office: are religion and spirituality at work?

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The values we have help shape who we are, but how much of a role do they play in the workplace?

Three people - two women and one man - in business attire talking happily around a table.

We all have personal values that influence our behaviour. These values may come from our religious or spiritual beliefs, or straight from the heart. But do they also influence our workplace decisions? Curtin senior lecturer in international business Dr Subramaniam Ananthram investigates.

Dr Ananthram and his colleague Associate Professor Christopher Chan from York University, Canada, came up with the idea for the study in 2013 after a casual Skype discussion about the formation of their own individual values and ethical codes.

“Chris is very religious and attends church regularly. I am a spiritual Hindu who believes in being good without necessarily visiting temples and going on religious pilgrimages. Chris belongs to the conservative far right on the political spectrum whereas I am more left-centre,” Dr Ananthram explains.

“Our political, religious and socio-cultural backgrounds are very different, yet our values are similar.”

The pair launched their research in India, where they interviewed 40 senior executives from a range of multinational organisations. Participants encompassed a broad representation of professional industries and religions commonly practised in India – Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Sikhism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism.

India was selected for the research due to its multi-faith culture and global perceptions of corruption within its corporate sector.

“India does not do well in global ethics rankings and incidentally is ranked quite low in the Corruptions Perception Index (81 out of 180 countries in 2017).”

Their research data isolated the role of religiosity in the development of ethical virtues in India, which included empathy, justice, temperance, transparency, conscientiousness, wisdom and moral fortitude.

Findings showed that virtues embedded within the various traditions of religion and spirituality played a role in ethical decision-making in the workplace.

“Thirty-three executives explained these traditions promoted virtues such as integrity, flexibility, tolerance, empathy and conscientiousness,” Dr Ananthram says.

“The virtues translate into competencies that help foster ethical actions. For example, empathy relates to ways of fostering quality working relationships.

“Actions include nurturing an individual, building friendly relations and not using seniority to get subordinates to do something unethical.”

While the research findings support the view that religion and spirituality influence behaviour in the workplace, not all participants identified with a particular religion or belief.

“We had seven executives who did not subscribe to a religious or spiritual group, suggesting that non-religious-based virtues and professional pragmatism should also be encouraged,” Dr Ananthram says.

“An executive from the media sector suggested that ethics should be practised at a human level. He believed that if it is opened up to religious interpretation, there is debate and confusion.

“To him, ethics is a secular topic, requiring individuals to be sensitive and weigh up the consequences of business actions to set a code of ethical practices.”

However, in contrast to the rich tapestry of religions and spiritualties, unethical behaviours such as corruption, bribery, cronyism and nepotism are notably present in India.

“One conclusion may be that certain individuals rationalise their unethical behaviours as a result of external pressure to conform. Such pressure coupled with personal greed arguably override any intention to remain ethical,” Dr Ananthram explains.

He believes the solution lies in leading by example alongside corporate education on ethical virtues.

“The onus is on the leadership. Consistency in ethical decision-making and leading by example is necessary to ensure ethics are reinforced.”

“An inconsistent decision-making style with a high regard for ethics by leadership one day and disregard the next only conveys the message that compromises are acceptable.

“In multi-faith workplaces, having inclusive ethical and core virtues embedded in religiosity, spirituality and humanity might provide consistency in ethical decision-making.”

Ananthram admits that more research into the link between religiosity, spirituality and ethics in the workplace is needed and plans to investigate the concept among targeted groups.

“We hope that our study findings can be extended to other multi-faith populations such as Singapore, Australia and Canada. We are keen to look at differences in ethical practices in headquarters and subsidiaries of multinational companies.

“We’d also like to understand how top management teams comprising individuals with different religious or spiritual backgrounds arrive at ethical decisions and how any conflicts are resolved.”

Related article:

Does being religious or spiritual make you more ethical at work?

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