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Navigating Religion and Public Service with an Increasingly Diverse Workforce

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Daniel Hummel
January 29, 2018

It is rare for the discipline of public administration to acknowledge religious inclinations as a public service motivation. This lack of attention or appreciation does not negate the very real connection many in public service have with their career choice and their own religious understandings of the world. This is especially the case in the United States where religiosity is much higher than in other developed democracies (in which the freedom of religion and the ability to act on those religious beliefs are protected by the Constitution).

David Houston, Patricia Freeman and David Feldman sought to confirm these connections in the journal Public Administration Review in 2008. They found in their research those in government-related public service occupations were more likely to be religious than non-public service occupations. In addition to these findings, they added that public servants are less likely to believe religion and government should exist in separate domains. In general, the authors concluded public servants are not secular and they recommended more study on the role of religion in the practice of public administration. This call has largely gone unanswered since this publication.

If one has not already thought this, let me raise the question now: If public administrators are truly less secular, how will this conflict with an increasingly diverse constituency and/or workforce? This, of course, assumes religious people cannot get along with people who are different from them, which is not entirely the case. An example of this has recently come to my attention and I would like to share this case, briefly, here.

Bowie State University with Banner Celebrating Diversity on Campus (photo belongs to author)

Thasha Boyd worked as a Contact Service Representative for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in Georgia between 2012 and 2016. She is a Muslim. During her time there, her supervisors had several Christmas-oriented events that were described as mandatory for the employees. This included hanging Christmas stockings on their cubicles, participating in “secret Santa”, doing a “cookie exchange,” etc. At one of these events the supervisors led a non-ecumenical prayer clearly favoring a particular religion. Their participation in these activities became a part of their employee evaluations. Boyd attempted multiple times to excuse herself from participation in these activities due to her religious faith. Instead of excusing her, she was compelled to engage in these activities and when she filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint she was subjected to retaliation through poor performance reviews, some of which were done retroactively without recourse contrary to internal standard practices. Eventually she resigned from her position and has recently sued the IRS under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This case would be an example of how religiously-inspired public servants managing a diverse office setting engaged in clearly unconstitutional behavior. How could this have happened and how could it be avoided in the future? Well, there are problems here that go beyond religious beliefs and represent the problems of organizational life. This is something pointed out by David Ewing in 1977 in his book “Freedom Inside the Organization: Bringing Civil Liberties to the Work Place,” in which he noted employees often feel compelled to surrender their rights at the workplace in an environment that resembles totalitarianism. Religiosity and totalitarianism is not a good combination. It seems like these two forces were at play in Boyd’s work environment.

Beyond organizational dynamics, there is the importance of proper training in public administration. The importance of diversity in public administration programs across the country has become codified in NASPAA’s (Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration) universal required competencies. Accredited schools have to demonstrate that students graduating from their programs have the ability, “to communicate and interact productively with a diverse and changing workforce and citizenry.” An element of this has to be an understanding that many are driven to public service through their religious worldview and it should be emphasized through adherence to this competency that interfaith understanding is an important part of this. One of the hurdles to implementing this is the continued belief that religion is not relevant or shouldn’t be in this environment. There is one thing to hope it is not, and another to face the reality that Boyd’s workplace environment would describe many organizational environments public and private. Ultimately, better diversity training along with good leaders would help to avoid costly litigation and dysfunctional workplace environments and communities.

Author: Dr. Hummel is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science in the Public Administration Program at the University of Michigan, Flint. He teaches classes on public policy, intergovernmental relations and public administration. His main research interests are urban resiliency / sustainability. His office # is 810-237-6560. His email is [email protected].

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