One of the fringe benefits of both self-employed and contractor life is enhanced ability to maintain one’s religious traditions. For a lot of people, this is a ‘Sunday’ issue and not really a big deal. Even then, though, there are places that say ‘Joe likes tennis on Sunday, and that’s the same thing, so no, you don’t get Sunday’s off.’ I usually gave such places my walking papers in a relatively short period of time. If they don’t make room for one of the most significant aspects of human civilization and life, they don’t fundamentally grasp “work-life balance”, or what I’d call those transcendent needs that form the basis for work in the first place.
But for half the world’s population, traditions can be more complicated (or ‘rich’ if you prefer) than just one day off a week. There’s a need for time, space, differences of appearance, diet, habit, and there are other requirements. Not making room for them is shortsighted and undermines of the key things that contributes to talent, ethics, and creative and insightful thought for a lot of people.
Grooming and dress are one of the ways traditions are expressed. Whether it’s temple locks or a beard, a yarmulke, turban, or female head covering or veil, or something else, this is probably the biggest struggle with corporate life and contracting, because it’s visual symbolism, and people tend to be stupidly frightened or ridiculously biased about such things. If their fundamental premise is “what does hair, clothes, or food have to do with faith?”, then they’re biased and that bias will play a role. Corporations try to make their employees keep from annoying one another, even if they get annoyed because of their own prejudice – that’s been the pattern of discrimination – fitting in, in traditional employment, can eclipse competence and contribution. In contracting and self-employment, it’s still a challenge, but things tend to lean the other way.
Personally, I once didn’t get a national promotion that was pretty much being thrown at me after high performance at a regional level. I hadn’t met the team in person but, after I did, the atmosphere changed immediately. When I asked for feedback on what might have made the difference, when it seemed so promising, they said “the beard seemed unprofessional”. What was funny was when I said, “It’s for religious reasons. My people don’t cut their beards.” the response was “Oh, well that can’t be the reason, then. We’re not allowed to make decisions based on that. We just liked other candidates better.” You see how it is. My beard got pretty long at one point. When some of my leaders commented on it once, I asked them if they’d have still hired me if they’d known it would get that long. They said, “Probably not, but we’d have found a different reason not to have hired you.” I liked that they were honest about it, at least; pretense is so endemic in corporate life that you’re lucky to get that kind of response. This kind of thing has happened more than once, of course, over the years. I’m often given the sense that “clean” men don’t have beards, or more often that culturally compliant men don’t. I’m not culturally compliant, so they’ve actually got that part right. The beard is a traditionally distinctive sign of maleness in a culture that instead of redeeming men, asks that they mute their sexual characteristics, whether they want to or not. Ever worked in a place that required women to wear makeup and nylons? More than half the places I’ve worked do. We don’t need to pretend it’s not happening. But that’s just it – religion is not supposed to be culturally complient. Religion claims to have supremacy in one’s devotion, epistemology, and yes even in one’s work. So bias against the one, is really bias against the other.
Dietary requirements can face challenges, too. I once worked in a town where finding a vegetable was like finding a classical music station. Good luck! It was a sea of roadside fast food. Planning, forethought, and pilgrimages to the local supermarket for granola bars, nuts, and other amenities were a necessary component of on-site work and corporate life. Also, food is often a primary means of socializing at company parties, lunches, and other get togethers. If you’re Hindu and don’t eat meat, or Orthodox and fast from animals half the year, or have other dietary requirements (Muslim, Kosher, some Buddhists, etc.), you may find it easier being an independent than saying no all the time.
Prayer can be a challenge. Muslims, for instance, are required to pray several times a day. At some places, they’re accommodated, but it’s increasingly few. We were on an upswing of tolerance until people were queued to change their attitudes to be more ‘patriotic’ by being less tolerant. If your contract gig requires you to be on site most of the time, it can still be hard. But Free Agent contractors (those that bring their own contract) can often negotiate enough off-site time, flexibility in coming and going (it’s outcome based, not attendance based) or can arrange for a private meeting room, especially with a welcoming work facility.
Holy Days are different, too, among different faiths. Those of us for whom Holy Week, Ramadan or another religious time period is particularly important, can often put the business on hold for a week, or negotiate that time off from a contract gig – without having to deduct from a bucket of personal days. For employees above line level, or in a job that has some flexible time off, this can be easy enough if worked out in advance, but often it’s more of a challenge For some environments, you only get 2-days for grief if your mom dies (lucking out if it’s close to a weekend), so time off for religious fasts or festivals can be pretty scarce.
A recent Monster article on this topic covered some similar points. We’re a long, long way from clarity on these things, when France is banning people from wearing head coverings in public and the US has a campaign against building permits for minarets. Wherever anyone is persecuted, trodden down, barred, and unfairly treated, then all of us are. Faith is nothing if it’s the hypocrisy of protecting my kind and persecuting others – and a business world cannot really survive institutionalized inconsistency on the basis of some undercurrent of majority faith and culture – it is eating away at the fabric of companies everywhere. Diversity is part of the core wisdom of successful companies – intolerant companies place ideology and conformity over long term success – they accept merely being good, not being amazing. In the meantime, smart companies are kicking their asses. When someone voices intolerance as a workplace norm, just look at your watch – it lets them know it’s just a matter of time before a company with equal resources realizes the competitive edge comes from diversity. For contractors and the self-employed, we’re already a few years ahead of some of our corporate competition in the form of traditional employees.