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Religion In Workplace Is Diversity Issue In U.S.

By Louise Fenner

Religion in the Workplace Is Diversity Issue for U.S. Companies

American companies are looking for ways to deal with a diversity issue they increasingly face: the need to accommodate workers' various religious beliefs and practices.

"A lot of companies haven't figured out what to do, but they know they need to do something," says David Miller, executive director of Yale University's Center for Faith and Culture.

Miller, who heads the center's Ethics and Spirituality in the Workplace program, said there is "a huge appetite" in corporate America for guidance on handling religious diversity issues.

Increased immigration by Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and other groups is creating a more religiously diverse work force. These employees' spiritual beliefs and practices must be accommodated in the workplace -- unless it would impose an undue burden on the employer -- according to U.S. law. But that is not the only reason employers find themselves dealing with religious issues, Miller told USINFO.

"Faith at work is a bona fide social movement," he said. For many employees, faith is a resource for ethical guidance. It can help people find meaning and purpose in their work, or help them "stay anchored and keep their sanity" in a difficult job situation, Miller said. People want to bring their whole selves to work, and for many that includes their faith.

Furthermore, in a global marketplace, respecting religious differences helps attract and retain talented employees and enables companies to reach out to a larger customer base.

"This is a very powerful, growing trend," says Georgette Bennett, president of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. "When we first started working on this issue, everybody said the religious dimension of diversity is a non-issue. But now if you go to meetings that deal with diversity, religion is a big item on the agenda."

Both Bennett and Miller advise companies on how to equitably accommodate employees' spiritual practices. "Our research found that the mere existence of a written policy [on religious expression in the workplace] can help reduce the perception of bias," Bennett said. Religion is usually cited in workplace anti-discrimination policies, but only 4 percent of companies have specific policies on religion, she said.

They both reject the term "tolerance" when discussing religion in the workplace. "It is patronizing. We're not about tolerance, we're about mutual respect and understanding," Bennett told USINFO.

"Tolerance is a word that is inadequate, it has outworn its welcome," said Miller, the author of God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement. "Tolerance is a minimum threshold. To me, mutual respect is the name of the game."

Issues that can require accommodation, Bennett said, are the wearing of religiously significant attire such as hijabs (headscarves worn by Muslim women), crosses or yarmulkes; taking time off for religious observance; and having facilities for prayer breaks and meditation.

Some companies hire chaplains to counsel employees facing personal or professional problems. Tyson Foods, for example, has some 120 chaplains at its food production plants and offices in Springdale, Arkansas.

Another approach is religion-based employee networking groups, also called religious affinity groups. Although many companies fear that such groups could be divisive, Bennett said, "a number of companies are doing affinity groups very successfully, such as American Express, Fannie Mae and IBM." Another is Texas Instruments, where employees started Christian and Muslim groups that have held joint panel discussions.

"When it works well," said Miller, "the groups come together and share and have education seminars so other people can learn not to be afraid and learn about traditions that are different from their own."

Bennett said many companies, even those that do not sanction religious affinity groups, "are starting to do learning sessions. When you create a safe space where employees can discuss the issues, it's extraordinary what happens."

A few years ago, the Tanenbaum Center helped put together a panel at General Motors (GM) consisting of individuals who were members of different religions, she said. (GM has no religion-based affinity groups.)

Panel participants discussed what they value about their beliefs, how those beliefs have been stereotyped and how that affected them, and how their beliefs affect their work life, said Bennett.

"When that session was finished, there was such an extraordinary response from the employees," she said. "Those who were members of minority religions here [in the United States] said they were so grateful because they finally had an opportunity to explain their beliefs and their practices, and those who were members of what are majority religions here, namely Christians and Jews, were so grateful because they said, 'Finally, we understand -- we just didn't know what all this was about before.'

"And there was really tremendous good feeling in that packed room," Bennett said.


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