Workforce.com

Guidelines Are Key to Dealing With Religion in the Workplace

There is no single magic shield to protect companies from getting into hot water regarding religion in the workplace—but one way to mitigate risk is by establishing what one expert calls a “faith-friendly” organization.

December 25, 2006
Yale Center for Faith & Culture at the Yale Divinity School and author of the forthcoming book God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement.

Faith-friendly organizations go beyond adhering to relevant laws on religious discrimination, he explains. These companies take into consideration the specific needs and sensitivities of many practices, including those that are outside of the traditional Christian-Jewish canons, encompassing Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and other traditions that immigrant employees from all over the world are brining with them to the workplace.

Issues around wearing hijabs, a type of headscarf worn by Muslim women; ablution, a ceremonial washing before prayer; and accommodating praying practices are coming up more often as the workforce becomes more diverse, Miller says.

He draws an important distinction between having a faith-based company, which lends preference to a particular tradition, versus a workplace that is faith-friendly, which treats all religions on a level playing field.

There are various paths toward fostering faith-friendliness, including allowing employees to form affinity groups. Some companies allow workers from each religion to create their own group, while other organizations have opted for an affinity group of various faiths under one umbrella.

Whatever approach a company decides on, Miller stresses the importance of establishing formal guidelines. Lack of rules could be a significant factor in the rising number of complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The EEOC received 2,340 charges of religious discrimination in 2005, s a 30 percent increase from five years ago and a 50 percent jump from a decade ago. The crux of the complaints were made against employers accused of not adequately accommodating the religious beliefs of workers.

A joint study from the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding and the Society for Human Resource Management surveyed 550 HR professionals in 2001 and found that less than a third of them had written policies on religion in the workplace.

Creating formal policies on religion in the workplace is particularly important in today’s environment. Studies have revealed that religion is becoming more important to the aging baby boom generation, which makes up 20 percent of the workforce.

“Religion plays a more central role as people get older,” Miller says.

Furthermore, the workplace is becoming more diverse and employees don’t want to have to put a muzzle on their traditions.

Studies have shown that Gen X employees are not keen on parting with their personal identity once they march into the workplace.

“They want to be who they are at all times,” Miller says. “If they wear tongue rings outside of the office they want to be able to wear it to work as well.”

The same logic applies to religion.

Miller urges companies going down the faith-friendly path to give critical thought to the type of language they use. Terms like religion could have pejorative meaning to certain individuals. Words like “faith,” however, are general and inclusive, which makes them less thorny to use.

Gina Ruiz