Religion is new diversity push in the workplace

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Employers, take this quiz: Did you know that Hindu, Sikh and Jain workers may want a three-day weekend this November to celebrate Diwali? Or that one co-worker urging another to accept Christ as a personal savior is a legally protected act?

When it comes to recognizing diversity in the workplace, first there was race, then gender and ethnicity, then sexual orientation. Now religion is knocking at the door, and, according to some experts and practitioners, it's here to stay.

``The train has not only left the station; it's passing through town,'' said David Miller, executive director of Yale University's Center for Faith and Culture and author of ``God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement.'' ``The question is: Are you going to steer the train or let it run you over?''

Evidence of faith percolating through the work force abounds. Prayer breakfasts, once confined to Capitol Hill, are now popular among executives in unexpected sectors such as technology and real estate. Companies are hiring corporate chaplains to do everything from performing marriage ceremonies to counseling drug users. A quick trawl through Amazon.com or a local bookstore reveals enough spirituality-at-work titles to fill a small chapel.

Is this just evangelical Christians flexing their business muscles? Or members of non-Western religions appealing for recognition? It's all that and more, Miller argues in his book. It's a genuine social movement, a confluence of forces that includes an increase in non-Western immigration, rising religiosity among management-level baby boomers, and a search for meaning prompted by 9/11.

This faith-at-work movement, said Miller, will ultimately shape business culture as profoundly as the push for civil rights and equal pay has shaped the environment for minority workers and women.

``The old paradigm of leaving your beliefs behind when you go to work is no longer satisfying,'' said Stew Friedman, director of the Work/Life Integration Project at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. ``More than ever, people want work that fits in with a larger sense of purpose in life. For many people, that includes a concept of God, or something like it.''

Whether prayer breakfasts, study groups or workplace ministries, much of the faith-at-work movement has evolved outside of the church, in large part because churches in recent decades have been uninterested in -- if not hostile toward -- the business world, according to Miller, a former senior executive in the financial sector.

``Although there are pockets of interest in some churches, it's fair to say that churches, whether evangelical, mainline Protestant or Catholic, have abdicated their theological and pastoral interest in the workplace,'' Miller said in an interview.

A thriving evangelical culture is gradually reversing this trend, however. David Roth was a vice president for business development and marketing at J.B. Hunt Transport when he attended a leadership conference at his Arkansas megachurch several years ago. When the conference ended, Roth's pastor announced the creation of a new ministry to bridge the gap between faith and work.

``That message penetrated me like a laser beam. I spent 25 years of my career as Christian on Sunday, but come Monday, it was all about success and money,'' Roth recalled. When the church ministry was spun off to form a separate, nonprofit organization called WorkMatters, Roth quit his VP post to become its first president.

Today, WorkMatters advises companies large and small on how to integrate religion and spirituality into their corporate values, and provides individual employees with a template for starting faith-based groups at work.

Meanwhile, leveraging employee religious knowledge to assist product design ``can help companies avoid a lot of dumb mistakes,'' such as Liz Claiborne's decision to embroider verses from the Quran on the rear end of its DKNY jeans, said Georgette Bennett, president of the New York-based Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.

The jeans were later recalled.

``Cultural competence is a big buzz word right now,'' she said, ``but you can't be culturally competent without understanding something about religion.''

Corporate leaders resistant to the idea of being faith-friendly may be persuaded by evidence that religion and spirituality already exist in their workplaces, Bennett said. She pointed to a 2005 NBC poll in which nearly 60 percent of respondents said religious beliefs played some role in making decisions at work; an even higher number said such beliefs influenced their interactions with co-workers.

Similarly, recent figures from the U.S. Census show a dramatic rise in the rate of immigration from non-Western countries; one-third of human resources professionals surveyed in 2001 by the Tanenbaum Center and the Society for Human Resource Management said the number of religions in their companies increased in the past five years.

Some companies worry that bringing religion into the workplace may open them up to litigation, said Bennett.

But employers may be surprised to learn how much religious expression is legally protected in the workplace by the Constitution and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from discriminating on religious grounds. The law also requires them to make ``reasonable accommodations'' for employees' ``sincerely held beliefs.''

According to an executive action paper from the Conference Board, a business research organization based in New York, employees can, within limits, wear religious medallions or clothing, argue with one another about religious beliefs and even hand out literature advising co-workers they will burn in hell unless they change their ways. An employer cannot force a Muslim woman to remove her head-scarf on the presumption that it might make customers uncomfortable.

Another contentious issue is what Bennett calls ``diversity backlash,'' in the form of Christian employee groups opposing domestic partner benefits, refusing to sign diversity statements that include homosexuality, or asking management not to recognize gay employee groups. Bennett said these conflicts make some companies ``scared to death'' of religion in the workplace, but Nicole Raeburn, a University of San Francisco sociologist, said many of these disputes have been successfully resolved, sometimes with the help of outside mediators.

``There has been some hand-wringing among companies about the (right) way to handle this,'' said Raeburn, author of the 2004 book, ``Changing Corporate America from Inside Out: Lesbian and Gay Workplace Rights.''

``People have a right to their religious beliefs, but they can't create a hostile work environment because of them. When companies have been very clear about drawing that line, it seems to defuse the tension.''

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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