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Professionals Tap a Higher Power in the Workplace

April 22, 2011
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Featured Article, HR & Business Administration
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New employees at Tyson Foods Inc. sit through much the same orientation about policies and procedures as new hires at any other company. But they hear from someone most employees don’t: a chaplain.

One of the company’s 120 chaplains gives a short lecture on the spiritual leaders’ role at Tyson, which several years ago rewrote its mission statement to include the words “faith-friendly” and “God.” “Primarily, we are here to demonstrate to all our people how deeply we care for them,” says Richard McKinnie, Tyson’s head chaplain. “Just as we have nurses who take care of the physical parts of our employees’ lives, we are here to help with the spiritual component of their lives.”

McKinnie’s chaplain program serves as an employee resource to help people deal with issues such as work-life balance, a divorce, or a death or sickness in the family. The chaplains are quite visible as they walk the floors of the company’s plants and offices every day listening to people’s concerns and sometimes praying with them. On plant floors, chaplains wear workplace smocks or hard hats with their name and the word “chaplain” written on the front. 

   “We’re not about religion; it’s not about Christianity or Islam. It’s the spiritual side of what people are,” McKinnie says. “This may surprise some, but in the course of my day I can’t think of a time I’ve ever uttered a word of scripture from the Bible.”

McKinnie believes the return on the investment in the chaplain program goes beyond employees’ spiritual health. “We’ve come to realize that the investment brings us increased productivity and has increased worker safety,” he says. “When people come to work with burdens—they’ve had a spat with their spouse or the teenagers have acted up—that can take their mind off their work.”

While chaplains remain a rarity in corporate America, employees’ religious and spiritual affiliations—like race, gender and sexual orientation before them—are an increasingly important part of a diverse workplace. “Religion is the next big frontier in which companies will have to shape policies that engage the whole person,” says David Miller, director of the Faith & Work Initiative at Princeton University, who has consulted with Tyson and other companies on incorporating faith into the workplace. “Religion and spiritual belief may be a deeply private matter for some employees, but it is a part of who they are.” Historically, a person’s religious beliefs were considered private. But the private has become public and the personal has become professional, Miller says. “In the old business model, you were at a job to work. In the new model, people want to balance their whole life.”

Newfound faith
This new attitude has prompted some companies to support employees’ religious practices such as daily prayers and to extend the number of days off from work to accommodate more religions’ holidays. Under federal laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, companies are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of religion. The law also requires employers to accommodate religious practices as long as they don’t cause undue hardship for the company.

But some organizations have gone far beyond what the law requires. Like Tyson, they may proclaim their workplaces “faith-friendly,” or they may adopt specific traditions that are consistent with the religions of their leaders. For instance, the U.S. Army requires soldiers to take a “spiritual fitness test,” which doesn’t mention specific religions but does place an emphasis on having religious or spiritual beliefs. An Army sergeant, Justin Griffith, took issue with the test because he is an atheist. He says he is considering suing, arguing that the test violates his constitutional rights.

Some companies try to show employees that religious diversity is not only acceptable, but also welcome in the workplace. According to the magazine DiversityInc’s 2011 Top 50 Companies for Diversity list, 28 percent report having faith-based employee resource groups, up from 10 percent in 2006. At Ford Motor Co., for instance, which came in at No. 47 on the list, the Ford Interfaith Network includes several hundred employees and supports all religious groups. American Airlines Inc. even uses its employees’ faiths to help understand its diverse consumers.

At Tyson, the shift to a more “faith-friendly” workplace came after John Tyson, the grandson of the founder, took over the leadership of the company in 2000. The appointment surprised some people who followed the company because he had been known for his past drug and alcohol abuse. And when he was president of the company’s beef and pork division, he was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in a prosecution against Mike Espy, the former secretary of Agriculture. Espy was accused, but then acquitted of, accepting gifts and favors from Tyson and other large corporations. When John Tyson and his new leadership team took over the company, they decided that “our people shouldn’t have to check their spirituality at the door when they came to work,” Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson says in an email.

John Tyson experienced what he called a “spiritual awakening” before becoming chief executive. He came to believe that faith had literally saved his life, says Judi Neal, the director of the Tyson Center for Faith and Spirituality in the Workplace at the University of Arkansas. The Tyson company and Wal-Mart’s Walton family gave $2 million each to create the center four years ago.

“Religion and faith are essential parts of who we are,” Neal says. “But there are good ways and bad ways of expressing those issues. The good way is exploratory, offering open dialogue that leads to growth. A bad way is to give people a list of churches that they should attend.” While it may seem hard to believe, Neal says she has known companies—most often private companies with specific religious affiliations—to offer such lists to their employees.

Although all of Tyson’s chaplains are of Christian faiths, McKinnie says he has created an 80-page manual that goes into detail about how to be accepting of all faiths. “When I am recruiting, if I have the least little doubt that a chaplain won’t be respectful of all faiths, I won’t hire them,” he says. One time, McKinnie says, he found a chaplain who had a Christian cross on his hard hat. “The cross was gone by the end of the day,” he says. “I asked him how he thought one of our Muslim employees would feel if he had to stare at that cross.”

Still sensitive
Religion clearly remains a sensitive topic in the workplace. Consider the case of Jack Griffin, the head of Time Warner Inc.’s magazine division who was dismissed in February after just six months on the job. The company’s chairman and CEO, Jeff Bewkes, wrote in an internal memo that Griffin’s leadership style did not mesh with the company, but news reports said references Griffin made to his religion—Roman Catholicism—in business meetings also might have been a factor in his departure. According to the “Media Decoder” blog at the New York Times, executives whose identities were not revealed said Bewkes had asked Griffin to tone down his religious remarks. For example, the executives said, Griffin had compared Time Inc. to the Vatican.

Employers often struggle to find the right fit for religion in their culture. Doug Hicks, professor of leadership studies and religion at the University of Richmond in Virginia, suggests there are four basic approaches: maintaining a secular culture; adopting a generic spirituality that acknowledges religious beliefs; endorsing an official religion, as a Catholic hospital does, for instance; or creating a workplace that puts a high value on a diversity of religions. 

   “There is a place between dry secularism,” he says, “and privileging your world view over others.” Yet achieving that balance can be difficult, as evidenced by religious discrimination statistics from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Since 1992, the federal agency has seen almost a doubling of religious discrimination charges, which accounted for about 4 percent of all charges in fiscal 2010. That’s up from about 1.5 percent two decades ago.

“The American population is increasingly religiously diverse and people are coming into contact with religions they may be unfamiliar with,” says Jeanne Goldberg, a senior attorney adviser with the EEOC, in explaining why she believes religious discrimination cases are on the rise. “Plus we live in a 24/7 economy where we need employees all days of the week and that may lead to more potential for conflict.” Fridays and Saturdays—not just Sundays—are days of worship, and religious holidays fall throughout the calendar and may include special requirements, such as when Muslims fast during Ramadan.

The so-called “9-11 backlash” has been another factor in the rise in EEOC complaints about religious discrimination, Goldberg says. Since 2001, more employees may have felt they were being discriminated against because they were, for example, Muslim or Sikh.

The EEOC even issued a fact sheet in late 2001, outlining what companies could do when faced with specific issues regarding religious dress and prayer practices they weren’t familiar with. The fact sheet gave examples of why a Sikh, whose religion requires men to wear a turban, could not be refused employment if he refused to take off his turban. It also offered guidance on how to accommodate requests for prayer rooms because Muslim employees were increasingly lodging complaints that they had to pray at their desks or that they were being fired because of their requests to pray a few times a day.

EEOC complaints range from people claiming they weren’t hired because of their religion to employees asking that they be allowed to wear religious attire at work, including the recent case of Walt Disney Co. restaurant hostess Imane Boudlal. She filed a complaint in 2010 when the company wouldn’t let her wear a hijab, or head scarf, because it conflicted with Disney’s dress code. Disney spokeswoman Suzi Brown says Boudlal hasn’t accepted the company’s proposed accommodations—including wearing the hijab, just not in a customer-facing job. The complaint is still pending with the EEOC. Boudlal couldn’t be reached for comment.

Few charges of religious discrimination turn into full-fledged lawsuits because issues typically can be resolved through open discussions, Goldberg says. But some cases do end up in court, including Myra Jones-Abid’s complaint. She was fired in 2008 by Belk Inc., a department store company, after she refused to wear a Santa hat and apron while she wrapped Christmas presents. Jones-Abid is a Jehovah’s Witness and doesn’t celebrate holidays. The company dismissed her, and now the EEOC is seeking back pay, reinstatement, compensatory and punitive damages, and injunctive relief.

Christmas and other religious holidays can indeed be problematic. American Airlines, for instance, allows employees to put up public displays in company offices during religious holidays. “We do make certain they aren’t offensive. You can be you, but not at the expense of someone else being themselves,” says Michael Collins, managing director of diversity strategies.

But a couple of years ago, the company received its first complaints about an Easter display, which featured a cross and biblical information. “We had used it for a decade or more, but this person complained that they were being proselytized to,” Collins says. The company took another look at the display and ended up removing some information—although the cross remained—and offering employee contact names in the Christian resource group to anyone who had questions.

Andre Delbecq, a professor at Santa Clara University in California, says studies show that a significant majority of Americans—more than 80 percent—consider themselves religious or spiritual. People who attend his workshops on spirituality come for different reasons, but one theme does dominate, he says. “Workers expect that they will bring their imagination, their intellect, their emotion to work. If they can’t integrate deeper meaning in their work, then they may feel they are doing hard time.”

Delbecq says there is an evolving area of scientific study that maintains religion and spirituality are key parts of one’s humanity, and that people with strong beliefs handle stress better, for example. Still, companies must be cautious and not assign more value to one religion over another. “It’s the subtleties where companies can get into difficulty,” says Liz Denton, author of A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America. “For example, you can offer places for prayer, but the issue can be more difficult when you approach the issues of group prayer,” such as prayer before meetings.

Ford has come a long way from its early days when founder Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent newspaper published a series called “The International Jew: The World’s Problem,” which claimed, among other things, that Jewish people were schemers plotting to control the world. Today, however, Ford is a good model for companies that aim to be truly inclusive. Muslims may pray two out of the five prayer times a day at work, while other employees meet each week for group prayer and Bible study. Employees may put up religious items in their cubicles and offices. And the company’s Interfaith Network, which serves as an umbrella organization for employee religious groups, sponsors activities ranging from Diwali dinners to celebrate the Hindu religious holiday to lectures to introduce people to different religions and their traditions.

“If you came in my cubicle, you would see a framed picture of my family that has the ‘proclamation of the family,’ [a Mormon tradition that proclaims the family as ordained by God], a statement that intersects with my religion’s beliefs in the family,” says Daniel Dunnigan, who helped form the company’s religious network and is serving as its chairman. “But the most common way I think we express our religions is in the way we conduct ourselves and how we treat others.”

The network, which dates back to the late 1990s, grew out of some employees’ desire to make more formal what had been informal prayer and Bible study groups, Dunnigan says. But Ford executives were concerned that a focus on any one religion could create a feeling of exclusion as opposed to inclusion.

Instead of having religious employee resource groups organize separately as they do at some companies, Ford decided to create an umbrella group to represent many religions at a corporate level. “Individual faiths retain their identity,” Dunnigan says, “but they organize under the interfaith group.”

The network operates through a board on which eight different religions have a seat. Dunnigan notes that the board chair doesn’t get a vote in the meetings about the network’s activities, “so the person can’t influence the board with his or her religious beliefs.” The network has evolved over the years to take advantage of online communication, including sending inspirational messages to an opt-in email list. It also operates an intranet for the approximately 4,000 people on its distribution list, offering a place for discussion of religions that may not have an established resource group. “We cover everything from A to Zoroastrianism,” Dunnigan says.

With so many different faiths represented, employees realize their common values as well as their differences, Dunnigan adds. “Different faiths will have different doctrinal values, but the values of faith, prayer, unselfishness, honesty, aren’t the purview of any one faith exclusively.”

Vijay Patel, who is part of the Hindu religious group within the Interfaith Network, says being part of the group has helped him engage in Hinduism. “I was born and raised in India, but I hadn’t really taken part in my own religion,” he says. “It was a great opportunity for me to learn about my own religion and about other religions.”

    Whatever route companies take in dealing with religion in the workplace, they can expect unexpected outcomes. When American Airlines announced that it was opening a route between Chicago and New Delhi, Nisha Pasha had suggestions for her employer on educating workers on Indian cultural and religious traditions they may never have encountered.

But she hadn’t imagined that the company would reach out to her and others who had formed Muslim and Indian religious and cultural employee groups. Yet, that’s exactly what happened. “We wanted to help out and we were ready to offer our suggestions, but then the departments started reaching out to us for ideas,” says Pasha, manager of strategic alliances at American’s headquarters in Dallas-Fort Worth. “It became a two-way conversation about food and language.” And religion.

Pasha says the resource groups offered advice on how to approach customers about major Hindu and Islamic holidays, including Ramadan. “The Muslim employees explained to flight attendants that some people may ask for their meals a half-hour later or that they would be saying their prayers as the sun was going down,” she says. Accommodating these and other requests, the employees explained, would go a long way in helping Muslim passengers feel comfortable on flights.

For Pasha, however, the discussions struck at a deeper issue. She says it helped employees feel that their religious and cultural traditions were valued by the company, not just that the airline adhered to government rules that require accommodation of employees’ religious needs.

Indeed, American Airlines requires that its religious groups focus on business goals. “While the resource groups are employee initiated, they have guidelines that they have to follow. They must identify managers and executive sponsors to make sure that what they do is tied to the business,” says Collins, the managing director of diversity strategies.

“The resource groups have to be seen as business partners and supporters. They aren’t just social clubs.”

Workforce Management, April 2011, pgs. 20-22, 24-25 -- Subscribe Now!

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