Welcome to our interview with Kent Johnson. Kent is a Senior Corporate Advisor for the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation (RFBF) and a management consultant on religious diversity at work. Kent works with RFBF to help companies adopt and practice best practices regarding religious diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
Kent recently retired from his role as a Senior Counsel at Texas Instruments Incorporated and now serves as a consultant to multinational companies on topics related to religious accommodation and faith in the workplace. Kent helps companies see the appropriate role of religious expression and religious diversity at work, in order to strengthen corporate cultures of trust, mutual respect and organizational effectiveness.
I’m Bill Fox, Co-founder here at Exploring Forward-Thinking Workplaces. It’s my pleasure to introduce you to Kent Johnson today. I shared my reflections on my interview with Kent at Is Religious Diversity for You?
Kent, welcome to this forum and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of Exploring Forward-Thinking Workplaces.
How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Kent Johnson: The starting point is to truly value our employees. Not to merely look for what they can do to help us achieve corporate profitability goals and short-term time-related goals, but to care about them as human beings. My particular focus in this vein is on religious diversity, and here’s why: If we really want to unleash diverse perspectives and energy, we must look for ways to help employees engage work in accordance with their deeply held beliefs.
That crucial connection of passion with work is key to flourishing. A key hallmark of humanness is our capacity to embrace principles and beliefs that define us and that motivate and inform our daily lives.
One of Webster’s definitions of “religion” is “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.” In that broad sense, nearly everyone is “religious.” Everyone has some deeply held principles and beliefs. We must free people to connect their “religion” to their work.
There’s a wonderful story that comes from the movie Chariots of Fire. The protagonist is a very religious person who competes for an Olympic gold medal. His religious sister asks why he spends so much time and effort running. His reply is classic: , “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.”
Think about that: When I invent, I feel God’s pleasure! When I resolve conflicts or stand up against favoritism, I feel God’s pleasure! When I help others succeed, I feel God’s pleasure! When I work hard – at great personal cost – to do what’s right though nobody’s looking, I feel God’s pleasure! Is there any employer who wouldn’t want this kind of motivation in their workplace?
Religion – defined as a set of deeply held personal principles and beliefs – is an appropriate focus for the workplace.
By definition, religion is personal. Our workplaces are becoming increasingly diverse. It’s counterproductive to try to press people into a predetermined mold. If we value people, we will try to understand the deeply held beliefs that define and motivate them.
What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
Kent: Encourage people to be themselves. Help people understand what’s motivating them. Many people simply don’t think about what it is that really energizes them. They simply react to their feelings. Why not ask, “What is it that really makes you feel like you’re doing something significant here; something that’s positive?” “What is it about work that makes you feel disengaged?” In short, leaders should free up the dialogue about deeply held principles and beliefs – about religion – in order to help employees connect their core identity with their work.
They’ll go to their respective houses of worship, or places where they do their religious activities, or their book clubs. Then they’ll go to work. Work becomes a necessary evil; a way to make money to survive. Their faith seems irrelevant to their daily work. They’ll long for the day when they can quit work and start living in accordance with their core beliefs all the time.
But when people are permitted to make those connections, you will see a tremendous amount of new energy and commitment. The sense of “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure!” begins to characterize their work.
To be clear, this is a very personal thing. It’s important that we not try to impose someone else’s “religion” on our employees. Far from it. Whenever there’s a compulsion to believe certain things, there are stifling consequences. When people feel they need to pretend that they believe the “party line,” they become disengaged and resentful. The goal needs to be to enable them to connect with what really motivates their hearts. That frees them to apply what they learned from their scriptures and defining life experiences and the basic principles that their faith teaches. The result is new life and vigor at work.
This is not just about connecting with people who ascribe to traditional religions. The goal is to enable and encourage all people – including atheists and others who reject any notion of religion or spirituality. Atheists have their own deeply held personal principles and beliefs. Those are relevant to the workplace too.
What are people lacking and really longing for at work?
Kent: It’s interesting. When I ask people that, they often say they don’t really know. Some will say, “I’m not sure what my expectations are. I want to make a living. I want to make good money and retire early and go fishing.” But often, when you scratch the surface and get people thinking about what it is they long for, they’ll say, “I want a sense of connection with my life’s purpose. I was made to do this stuff. I feel like I was made to thrive in this way and to help society by contributing to this company in this particular way.” That is a profoundly “religious” kind of expression, in the broad sense. It’s a sense of carrying out a calling. It’s the difference between I got a job and I’ve got to do this little thing.
There’s this great story that everybody here’s probably heard time and again. It has to do with two bricklayers. They’re doing the exact same job. You ask the first bricklayer, “What are you doing?” He says, “Well, I’m making bricks. That’s what I do for a living.” Then you ask the other person doing the exact same thing. He responds with “I’m making a cathedral to honor the most high God.”
Whoever that God is, whether it’s a force or whatever it is, that second worker has made the connection. It’s a powerful motivator. What do we long for at work? I think for many of us, it’s connection with our life’s purpose that’s bigger than us. Something bigger that’s thrilling. That’s exciting to us. Significant. A sense of accomplishment. An environment where I can feel free to work with a whole heart and to do it openly — not undercover. I think those are some things that people lack and long for in a lot of workplaces.
What is the most important question leaders should be asking employees?
Kent: I ask, “Do you feel like you have freedom here to be yourself? And to fulfill your personal goals? Your destiny? If not, what’s holding you back? What are we doing wrong? How can we help you connect your passions, skills, and fundamental calling to your work here?” I think that gets at a crucial question.
I will say this: I don’t think it’s helpful to ask this question periodically, on a scheduled basis. This question has to be embedded in the culture. An attitude of openness and interest in an individual’s motivations has to be characteristic of the culture. And the question has to be posed again and again, in different ways. The question shouldn’t be posed by management alone; it should come up in discussions among coworkers and individuals. The goal is to influence a culture where people are not afraid to share their hearts and their relevant core beliefs. Our job is to create an environment that’s conducive to finding purpose and living out our workplace calling. That would be fantastic, wouldn’t it?
If I care about you, I will want to know what your workplace “calling” is. I don’t want you to feel like you have to go underground and be secretive about it. In fact, if you are being secretive about it, that could be counterproductive. In cultures where people feel they can only discuss their core beliefs with those who they know share the same beliefs, the result is distrust and fear. People worry about what “those others” might think about them. The echo chamber doesn’t generate any new ideas or new energy.
Now as I’m saying all of this, I want to make clear that I don’t advocate forcing people to talk about their core principles. That’s inconsistent with the ideas I’m advocating. Freedom of “religious” expression includes freedom to remain silent. But my experience over many years is that, when we really desire to understand people’s core belief systems, many are thrilled to open up. When a few people do this, we see that the openness is contagious. In my experience, it’s a very positive result. People begin to learn from each other. They get to know their differences, and they begin to see the tremendous common calling that they have. The bonds of deep friendship and mutual respect that result are transformational.
There are creative ways to pose this foundational question. We can encourage a workplace culture that’s respectful of religious diversity by promoting events such as panel discussions among employees talking about how their faith impacts their work. Is it relevant? How does it impact my decisions on a regular basis? How does it impact with the way that I interact with people of other faiths? How does it impact the way I treat gays and lesbians? How does it impact how I treat Muslims and Atheists and all different types of diverse people that I engage with? Get the legitimate questions out on the table and let people talk about it freely and positive things will be happening.
What is the most important question employees should be asking leaders?
Kent: I would ask leaders, “How can we inspire our diverse employees to be all that they can be at work?” How can we avoid stifling people of faith in particular?
Bill: What is the most important question we should be asking ourselves?
Kent: Here’s one I would encourage all my employees to ask themselves from time to time: “Am I living at work in a way that accords with the principles or system of belief (or religion) that defines me as a person?” “Do I live what I say I believe?” “Do I feel like when I run I feel god’s pleasure (however I define “god”)?”
We want our people to live what they believe so that they can be connected to their work with a full heart.
Now I should say this: We shouldn’t be naïve. There are some belief systems that are toxic. Here I’m referring to core beliefs that deplore people of other faiths or people of other races, economic classes, genders or sexual orientations, or people who eat a particular food, or systems that celebrate selfish exercise of personal power without constraint at other people’s expense. We must not require people to approve or condone lifestyles, behaviors or belief systems that conflict with their own religion. However, we’ve all heard of extreme belief systems that advocate death for all “unbelievers,” and the like. My experience in the US has been such toxic belief systems are extremely rare in the workplace, and are never expressed by workers. If workers hold those beliefs, then I’d rather have people talking out in the open about the implications of such beliefs. As a practical matter, though, in my experience, respectful interfaith dialogue on workplace-related matters has invariably promoted egalitarianism and a high view of the value of human beings, no matter what their beliefs are. It will be a positive thing.
How does religious diversity contribute to more healthy corporate cultures?
Kent: Religious diversity contributes to a healthier corporate culture because it enables full engagement of our employees and sets the stage for mutual trust to flourish.
In this context, I would like to point out one of the pitfalls of not allowing religious and spiritual topics to be discussed in the workplace. A culture that stifles this kind of discussion tends to drive people into the echo chamber. In other words, if I can’t talk to people of other faiths about this, then I’m relegated to talking only to “my own kind.” Suppose, for instance, that I’ve been engaged in a scripture study that explored the detrimental effects of favoritism and the inherent worth of all human beings, and I’m wrestling with a question involving the company’s anti-discrimination policies. If I think some people in the room might ascribe to a different faith from my own, then I feel I must not bring up insights from my scripture study. It’s just not considered proper. So I talk only to people like me; or I talk in code which can only be deciphered by people like me. In so doing, I never learn that there is extremely broad consensus among faiths that such favoritism is wrong. Worse, I may hear negative and distorted stories about other faiths, and unless there’s cross-communication, those distortions cannot be rebutted by those who ascribe to those faiths. Walls of unjustified distrust and suspicion are allowed to grow.
Another way that a purposeful focus on religious diversity contributes to a more healthy corporate culture is that it can strengthen people’s resolve to live according to their principles. Suppose, for instance, an employee becomes aware of a corrupt activity (like, say, the VW emissions fraud) and is worried he might be criticized and pressured if he raises questions about it. Or suppose an employee sees workplace bullying going on, and worries about what might happen to her if she calls it out. Wouldn’t we want our employees to apply the principles of their faiths, to speak truth to power? With that in mind, why not enable and even encourage optional workplace studies on faith-based topics like this?
Those are just a couple of examples.
Is the term religious diversity exclusionary to some people?
Kent: It’s a very good question, because there are a lot of people who wouldn’t identify with the term religion. Many people say, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.”
Webster’s Dictionary defines religion in a way that’s quite helpful. There are several definitions, but one of them is this:
It’s a cause, principle, or system of beliefs that is held to with ardor and faith.
In that vein, many people are “religious.” Many people have associated the term religion exclusively with organized religion. But whatever that system of beliefs you embrace, whatever it is that moves you, that you hold on to with ardor, emotion and your being, that is what defines who you are. That is “religion.” And that’s the way that I approach the concept of religion in the workplace. We want to open the door for all, not just the people who are Baptists, and the people who are Muslim. But it actually opens it up much wider.
In fact, it’s so much richer when we do that, because we get different perspectives that are valuable in the workplace; perspectives that can inform good decisions. In my experience, at least in the US, there’s an unwritten law in most companies. We can talk about doing the right thing. We can have very high sounding codes of conduct, and we in fact put them in a frame on the wall. But the culture often constrains us from discussing our faith, religion, or spirituality. Discussion of faith seems to be a little weird and uncomfortable. People are really discouraged from bringing their whole self to work as a result. To me this restrictive environment is a real hindrance to creativity and to proper functioning of a company.
For this reason, I think religious diversity is the key “missing link” in many diversity programs. It involves us all. It’s a topic that warrants attention.
Kent: There are so many personal anecdotal personal experiences, but I think at the end of the day this is all about anecdotal personal experiences. At Texas Instruments, we were very blessed by a management that got the vision many years ago. Back in 2001, they realized that this kind of openness to religious discourse can be a positive thing.
We have seen friendships grow across religious boundaries that are much richer than I can even imagine happening otherwise. In my years at TI, I found that Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus are very strongly behind this idea. It has not been what some people feared – that one dominant religion would take over. It’s been good for all.
I love it when people are praying for one another regardless of their religion. Even if you don’t believe in a God, it translates into and is understood in most cases as someone cares about me enough to speak to their God about me for my well being. To help and stand alongside and encourage me.
I’ve seen relationships built through visiting a Hindu temple. People from a Muslim faith going to a Baptist Church and walking through the Baptismal area learning about the doctrine and ideas behind Christianity. And large groups of Christians going to a Mosque to speak with an Imam to understand his heart and what he is speaking to his congregants. The Jewish employees sharing their holiday seasons and the meaning behind the holidays.
It’s not just this management attitude of, “Ok, we’ll give you your time off. Go and do your religious thing someplace else, but don’t say anything about it here at work. We don’t want you doing any of that.” That kind of attitude of exclusion feels very negative. In contrast, when people approach the holiday seasons as an opportunity to share information about the core motivating principles of their faith, they come to know one another on a more profound level. You see friendships building up.
One of the most impactful events in my life came about when I learned that a foreign national of another faith had been very apprehensive about connecting with me, a vocal Evangelical Christian, because he worried that I would bring a condemning and confrontational attitude. But after we got to know one another and he began to see what I was advocating, that person said to me at one point, “I now realize that you really care about me as a person. You’re not against me. You are for me just as I am without any change in my belief system or anything else. I want you to know that I called my relatives back in my home country and told them that you evangelicals are not hateful people.”
To me, that is a step toward world peace. Now this may sound like I’m really off the rails, but I do believe that what we’re talking about has implications for the entire world, not just our companies. When we touch just one heart, on a spiritual level, we are setting in motion a power that goes out from the workplace. That one person contacts friends and relatives in other countries and cultures. The personal caring connection, good will, trust and love begins to spread. That’s why the talk about connecting faith to work fires me up. What a privilege it is, to have that type of significant positive impact; not just on our workmates, but on the world!
How does religious diversity impact corruption and compliance in the workplace?
Kent: I’ll give you one example. When lawyers get together to talk about the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which is an anti-bribery statute, we spend a lot of time on the topic of corporate culture. How can we influence a worldwide culture that values honesty and integrity? Today many companies are dealing in countries where the culture seems to dictate that, to get business, you’ve got to pay somebody off under the table.
But that’s an unethical practice, and it’s counterproductive in many ways. When you have religious diversity, you have an open door for people to express their religious principles that they adhere to with ardor, belief, and courage. It’s a very positive cleansing kind of thing.
Why should I do what’s right if I think I can get away with a shortcut of being more profitable? I’m going to get a big commission if I pay this guy off. Why wouldn’t I want to give him some of that commission if I think I can get away with it?
Well, at one level – maybe you’ll get caught, and he’ll be fired or maybe even sent to jail. That’s one argument, but it’s pretty hollow; especially for people who think they might be able to get away with it. So, these core principles are really important to lean against an environment conducive to cheating and corruption.
How does religious diversity relate to the concept of good citizenship?
Kent: There’s a lot of discussion in human resource periodicals about being freed up to do good in the world. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could feel like your company supports efforts to do good in the world?
Commentators argue for freeing some employees up to conduct tutoring for underprivileged people who might not be able to get that information in their lives. Or maybe getting volunteers to help people rebuild after a major storm. Or matching gifts for United Way. Those kind of programs are wonderful. A lot of companies embrace them.
But many of those same companies don’t open the door to discussion about religious motivations of those activities. Companies that do open up that topic find common ground among Muslims (for example) who embrace as one the pillars of their faith the practice of almsgiving and caring for people who can’t care for themselves. To have them working alongside people of other faiths who embrace that same principle is a culture-building experience that impacts society far beyond the company walls, while earning goodwill for the company’s reputation. It’s just a win-win all the way around.
So that’s another example of how opening the door to religious faith filled spiritual topics at work can help build a culture of generosity and positive impact.
I hope these reflections are thought-provoking and helpful for your followers. I’m now working with the nonprofit Religious Freedom and Business Foundation on curricula to train companies and other workplaces on how to navigate religious diversity, and how to implement the approaches I’ve talked about here with you. Interested people should check out religiousfreedomandbusiness.org.
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