To work here, you have to pray every morning
Talk of spiritual conflict at the workplace: The more familiar imagination would be that of a group of employees beseeching their employer to recognise their religious inclinations. Some would ask to be granted special opportunity to observe certain rituals at intervals during work.
But quietly somewhere in Nairobi, employees of some company are enduring a religious problem of a different kind.
The company deals in exports and is nothing close to a religious organisation, but the bosses insist that staff must worship in a certain way every day.
They ignore the reality that employees may have different religious attachments.
One employee agreed to speak to us, but on condition that the identity is concealed. We shall call him Kimeu.
“On the day I first reported to work at the company. I arrived at 8am in the morning to the bustles of people in religious worship. I shrugged it off as a section of employees who must have chosen to hold their morning prayers in the office before work,” Kimeu recalls. Little did he know that was to become his life at the company.
A circular to employees with the following morning’s worship programme was soon to pop up on his PC. As if that wouldn’t surprise him enough, he had been assigned a role in the worship menu.
Kimeu was perplexed. To him, it is was unorthodox for such activity to be forced on people without their consent. He had not been informed about such happenings during the job interview.
“Just because the managing director of the organisation is a devout Christian, every department has a day on which to lead prayers. Employees have to be at work by 7.30am purposely for the service, which ends at 8.30am. On top of this, there are quarterly prayer services held at a getaway,” Kimeu says, wondering aloud why his bosses haven’t figured out that the staff could hold differing religious beliefs.
In what is a well-organised sermonette with pre-identified members of staff orating bible verses and conducting prayers, Kimeu wonders why a perfectly secular organisation should be forcing him and others to hold daily worship services in the office.
He feels this activity runs afoul of the law that allows for the freedom of religious expression.
The Constitution of Kenya defends every person’s right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion.
The Bill of Rights protects individuals against being compelled to engage in any act that is contrary to their belief or religion.
“I am a Christian. I have been since I was a little child. I believe in God and in prayer. But [to be forced to do so at work] is a little disconcerting, especially because you are not doing it out of your own free will but bullied into worshiping at the wrong place. Religious recitation by coercion can never be sincere, at least for me,” Kimeu complains.
“If you report to work at 8am, which is the prescribed clock-in time, the bosses are not shy to ask where you’ve been and why you skipped the service,” adds the unhappy employee.
“Yet when I applied for the job, I was not aware I was coming to work for a religious organisation. Nor was I told that there would be mandatory prayer ceremonies.”
Kimeu recalls that one day, in defiance, employees decided to boycott the quarterly service. They were testing the waters.
The next day of work, a Monday, was a hostile one at the office. “We were grilled for non-attendance. It was really awkward being scolded in the office like little children for not attending a company prayer service.”
Kimeu remembers their boss berating them: “I will not take it very kindly! I want to see you in my office, one by one. You must tell me why you had to embarrass the department like that. That Sunday is a working day dedicated to prayer and should be treated like any other working day.”
The experience makes Kimeu wonder: “Should people be obliged to worship at work by their bosses?”
The big dilemma, he says, is that there is no one to complain to because the culture is being directed from way up the ladder.
“They should make it so that people can attend on a voluntary basis as opposed to being arm twisted,” Kimeu suggests.
The department heads have made it a competition and are too overzealous in ensuring that they gather the largest crowd to the prayers day, probably to score highly with the company chief.
“Even though they haven’t yet fired anyone for not attending the events, one really feels harassed,” Kimeu says.
Organisational psychologist Patricia Nyokabi says it is understandable that some organisations may be trying to shape a positive company culture, but, she warns that no boss should force or subject any form of religious indoctrination or observance at the workplace.
“It is dangerous because it could be mistaken by employees as an employer overstepping their boundaries,” she says. “This could raise workplace tensions and conflicts because any upright thinking employee—and they are supposed to be—will feel their freedom of worship is being abused.”
In fact, Nyokabi agrees, there could be legal implications to this, apart from placing undue hardship and trauma upon staff.
“Employees would have a case against the employer for forced religious observance and infringement of their rights of worship,” she adds, matter-of-factly.
Charles Otieno an independent HR consultant, says although religion is generally perceived positively, it can also cripple an organisation if not well handled.
“I am sure that every leader is charged with the responsibility of selling their vision and beliefs to employees. But some beliefs are personal,” he stresses.
In Kimeu employer’s instance, Charles thinks the head is keen to have his staff to sail with him in the same belief boat, only that the approach adopted, which basically entails forcing and intimidating staff so that they do not express objection, is wrong.