Handle With Care: Mixing Business and Religion

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I grew up in a time when the old rule “never mention religion and politics in polite conversation” still held. The line “attend the church or synagogue of your choice” was about as close as you got. Friends or family could fight it out till the cows came home, but outside the church and the home, reticence and neutrality were the order of the day. As society becomes more varied and open to different beliefs, we might want to consider bringing back that attitude. The first rule of professionalism for any business is to make your clients or customers feel comfortable when doing business with you. Making people uncomfortable by injecting personal beliefs too frequently or too forcefully into a business relationship is the very opposite of professional behavior.

What Is Acceptable?

Very few people would argue with a business owner passively expressing religious beliefs. If you wear a cross as a pendant, keep a copy of the Quran on your desk, or have a donation jar for your synagogue’s fund drive by the cash register, and make no attempt to draw attention to them, only a zealot would object. Your clients or customers will know where you stand and respect you for it. Likewise, donations from your business to your religious group or involvement in events sponsored by your congregation aren’t likely to make waves, unless of course, your congregation is the Westboro Baptist Church. Social media is trickier. Remember, your posts aren’t just on your Facebook or Twitter page. They’re presented on your followers’ news feeds, which are their territory, not yours. While one post about an event your church is holding might be no problem, regular posts related to religion might not be well received. Your followers are showing an interest in your business, not your opinions.

Another obvious place where mixing religion and business is when your beliefs are directly related to your product. If you own a Catholic Bookstore, sell Wiccan ritual supplies, or run a halal butcher shop you’re not likely to have to worry about how your customers will react if you cross yourself, say “blessed be”, or do your daily prayers. For you, it’s an important part of your business.

A third example of where business and religion can politely mix is where a particular religion is strongly identified with a culture. If I went into an Asian market and saw a statue of Cai Shen, encountered an icon of St. Seraphim of Sarov in a Russian restaurant, or find a a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe in a Mexican grocery, I’m going to treat it with respect. Be aware, though, that if any of them were blaring a bagpipe rendition of Amazing Grace, my reaction might be different.

But You Can Easily Cross a Line….

Professional behavior demands that any business be respectful to the comfort zone of its customers. Business owners cannot expect to place their own “free expression” at a higher value than their customers’ freedom not to be bothered if they expect to succeed. Whether you like it or not, we’re living in a pluralistic country where not everyone will share your beliefs, or want to hear about them. Overt displays of controversial opinions, and no one should claim religion isn’t controversial, are rarely welcomed. ( See Matthew 10:34-36 ) If you feel you must make a religious reference, keep it short, be ready to move on if it isn’t welcomed, and don’t do it repeatedly. You’ll do your cause no good by appearing pushy. Better yet, stick with proper business etiquette and keep it to yourself. There is no excuse for any businessperson to inject their religious beliefs into their dealings without the explicit consent of their customers.

Don’t Circle the Wagons. You’re Not Under Attack

The sensible response when a business owner learns, no matter how politely, that a customer has been made uncomfortable by religious beliefs intruding on a simple transaction would be to apologize and try to avoid losing a customer. Unfortunately, that’s seldom the way it works. The business owner is more likely to get defensive, verbally attack the customer, and loudly complain about his rights being infringed and about being persecuted. Hello martyr complex, good bye customer. Meanwhile all the customer was doing was pointing out that all he wanted to do was buy a cup of coffee without being subjected to an altar call. I’ve seen this happen time and time again. Engaging in a hissy fit when someone is honest enough to tell you the truth isn’t likely to win you any converts.

Notice the Caveats

I’m going to say something here that will be controversial, but I’m going to say it anyway. Caveat: What I’m about to say is my own opinion and should not be taken as an official position of this blog or of JV Media Design. Let’s be honest. I’ve mentioned several religions in this post, but they’re seldom part of the problem. It’s unlikely that a Catholic business owner will insist on giving you a rosary with your sandwich, or that a Buddhist will lecture you about dharma while selling you a paperback novel, or that a Wiccan will cast a protective ritual while you’re choosing parsley. In at least 90% of cases where customers are insulted or made to feel uncomfortable by religious belief being added, unasked for, into a business transaction, the fault lies with a small subset of one form of Christianity.

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