Experts en Management
Experts en Management
Ramadan came to an end in mid-April, and it was not without controversy in the world of professional football. Should breaks be granted, for example, to allow practising players to hydrate? In a reminder to referees, the French Football Federation (FFF) stated that stopping matches for this reason was not acceptable, in accordance with the neutrality of football and the desire to keep sports and religion separate. While the request was not explicitly put forward by the players, the international defender Lucas Digne took to Instagram to react to the e-mail:
“[In] 2023, we can stop a match for 20 minutes for decisions, but not [one] minute to drink water.”
In England, where he plays, a different choice has been made. Whether rules are flexible or stricter, players sometimes deliberately kick the ball out of bounds to allow practising the few Muslim players to break their fast on the sidelines without interrupting the game. The goalkeeper for Tunisia, for example, faked injury during a match at sundown to enable his teammates to rush to drink water and snack on dates.
Recently, the coach of FC Nantes excluded a player who was observing Ramadan on a match day, specifying that the decision sought to protect both the player’s health and performance, and by extension that of the team. On the other hand, some point to the stellar performances of players like Karim Benzema who claim to observe the fast. These would be proof of the absence of negative impacts on sports performance, and even of positive impacts.
Earlier in April, allegations of racism by Paris Saint-Germain’s coach, Christophe Galtier, also added oil to the fire. According to the former Azurian sporting director Julien Fournier, Galtier had privately complained of the number of Muslims and black players within his team. The case highlighted the extent to which the question of religion in sport is not only linked to the freedom of worship, but above all to the fight against discrimination.
As academics researching religious expression in the workplace, we find these events typical of contemporary French attitudes.
Religious expression in the workplace refers to the demonstration of individuals’ faith in their professional context. This may involve prayers or the donning of religious symbols at the office, or requesting schedule adjustments or time off to practice. Some elements are more diffuse because their religious character is not explicitly mentioned, but they can still be identified as such by colleagues.
In spite of France’s culture of secularism, known in French as laïcité, religious expression in the workplace does not tend to stir controversy. When it does, problems are usually resolved with the intervention of local management. The latter can make do with more or less defined processes within the organisation. Management is often carried out on an individual scale and aims not to transgress the rules in place in the organisation. Only a minority of cases do so and receive a quick and firm response from the hierarchy.
Some companies thus choose to more or less explicitly regulate religious expression in the workplace based on criteria defined by the legislature and jurisprudence, including safety, hygiene, or commercial interest. They may use internal regulations or guidelines for this purpose. However, in accordance with the principle of secularism, what prevails outside of public service missions is indeed freedom of conscience, always accompanied by freedom of worship.
The debate over football players’ faith is old news. For many years, including in the French championship, teams have been multicultural, multi-faith, and simply very diverse. Identity issues cannot remain at the door of the company, even when it takes the form of a green grass field and thousands of people pay to watch its employees work.
This is especially true as players have all the characteristics of what we call “high performers” or “talents”. This gives them a fairly strong negotiating power and reduces individual-organisation asymmetries. Many players celebrate their goals by referring to their beliefs or directly praising the god they pray to, for example by raising their index finger toward the sky.
Some players also have the habit of prostrating themselves after a goal, individually or collectively, as a sign of adoration, like Liverpool star striker Mohamed Salah. There are even sports media outlets that create all-star teams based on religion.
Furthermore, some footballers have always invoked their faith as a source of motivation and commitment. French player Olivier Giroud frequently cites his evangelical Christian faith as a lever for calming down and cultivating patience when sports results are not up to par. He even wrote a book about it. We have also heard of “doping by religion” in the football world.
The recent controversies in the world of football recall the pondering of many an HR manager over how to best reconcile religious practice with jobs that might be physically and psychologically demanding. Some clubs, including in France, will elaborate plans with the players on how to manage the Ramadan period, adapting their diet and training accordingly.
Different case studies recall some well-known elements in the management of religious practices in the workplace. First, it is important to define a rule, communicate it, ensure it is correctly carried out, and own up to it. Leaving aside the contents of the rule, in this regard the FFF has made a choice and is able to justify it, whether one agrees with it or not.
Second, the management of religious behaviour at work raises the question of the relationship between common rules and individual rules. Stopping the game for everyone, for example, changes the common rules of the game in favour of an individual religious rule. Waiting for players to hydrate and snack while a ball has gone out of bounds maintains the common rule while showing a collective willingness to understand particularities, give them a place, without prioritising them.
Excluding an employee who is fasting from the group, even if done publicly, may appear dissonant compared to other teams and contexts that adapt the practices of technical staff or dietary plans to the player’s constraints. Clubs have also issued exemptions from double training sessions to fasting players. On the one hand, individual identity allows one to break free from a collective rule, and on the other, working conditions adapt to it. Two accommodations that are not of the same nature.
In football, as elsewhere, the management of religious practices at work raise issues of maintaining equity among all people, whether believers or not, managing the irreversible impacts that may result from more or less reasonable accommodations, and more broadly, respecting individual beliefs and supporting them as long as they do not contravene the rules of collective functioning and the purpose of the organisation.