It is a rare forum because of the disparate groups it frequently brings together: Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, Orthodox Christians and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly known as Mormons.
Often they collaborate on events such as the National Day of Prayer. On other occasions, they work separately to educate their co-workers about their faiths. In the years since the Ford Interfaith Network was founded, the members have received the active encouragement of their employer, Ford Motor Co., which sees the organization as an example of its commitment to diversity.
Nearby, at Acro Service Corp., a Livonia, Michigan-based information technology and engineering staffing company with about 3,000 employees, owner and president Ron Shahani strives to celebrate his staff’s religious diversity. When it is time for the Hindu New Year, Shahani encourages the customary passing out of sweets. In December, Christmas trees dot his office complex. Jewish and Muslim holidays get a good deal of attention too.
Ford and Acro illustrate how Detroit employers of different sizes are working to manage religious diversity in the workplace. To be sure, it is not always an easy task. Some civil rights groups say not all employers take such an enlightened view of religious diversity. But changing laws and the growing populations of Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists also mean employers and human resource leaders must be more attuned to religious differences.
"Corporations that are sensitive to diversity have to understand that diversity is more than just about race and gender," said the Rev. Lonnie Peek, director of religious studies at the Wayne County Community College District and co-owner with his wife, Eunice, of e-Business Strategies, a diversity training firm.
"It includes religion. What makes religion a little bit more sensitive is that there are certain practices and procedures that have differences. The boss and the manager have to be aware of the nuances of religion."
This lack of understanding sometimes leads to charges of insensitivity by employees.
"Most of the complaints we get have to do with religious holidays or a feeling of not being treated fairly," said Betsy Kellman, director of the Michigan regional office of the Anti-Defamation League. "A lot of the onus is on the individual employer. A lot of times this has to do with employers or school districts feeling they don’t have to give the benefit of doubt to employees.
"There was a woman who was a Jew by choice, meaning she converted. Because she was African-American, her employer had doubts. He would not allow her to leave early when the sun went down to celebrate Shabbat," Kellman said. "I had to really explain to the employer how offensive that sounded. Even though she had her work covered, he would not allow this person to have the time off. We had to work hard to make this employer understand that she was not putting something over on the employer."
Kellman said most of the complaints received by the ADL come in spurts. Sometimes, her organization goes weeks or months without getting a single complaint, she said.
Harold Core, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, said that while religious discrimination complaints spiked shortly after September 11, 2001, the number of complaints received by the agency over the past five or six years has been fairly consistent.
But Patricia Nemeth, founder and partner in Detroit-based Nemeth Burwell and an employment lawyer who represents corporations, said her office has seen an increase in complaints, many from people of Middle Eastern descent.
"We see claims based on alleged comments and alleged denied promotional opportunities. The comments go toward claims of a hostile work environment. The alleged comments feed into hostile-work-environment and wrongful-termination claims."
Experts say the best preventive medicine against lawsuits or claims of wrongful discrimination is common sense.
"The best practices we see are consistent enforcement of policies," Nemeth said. "That’s the best way to combat these claims. Put policies and procedures in place for investigations for any types of complaints that might arise. You have to have a lot of open communication and a lot of understanding."
Ultimately, Shahani said, an employer that embraces the religious and ethnic diversity of its workers stands to gain from their unique worldviews.
"Every system has a different way of resolving issues," said Shahani, a Hindu who came to the U.S. from India.
He cited an example that he has seen at work on a few occasions.
"We may bid on a big contract," he said. "Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. This may be something we worked hard on. Then we get the note that we didn’t get it. Then there is someone sitting there with a religious faith that says our job is to put in the work. We don’t control the outcomes. It’s very positive energy. It just adds to our company’s collective strength."
Ford says its approach to religious accommodation benefits the automaker in other ways.
"Having a group like this allows people to bring their whole selves to work," Ford spokeswoman Marcey Evans said. "People’s spirituality is so much a part of them. Anecdotally, we hear that employees value that so much that it keeps them motivated and that it prevents them from worrying about how to fit their daily prayers or meditations into their schedule. There are meditation rooms and rooms set aside for prayers. There is a lot of accommodation made for employees. This allows them to be more productive at work."