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Spiritual Etiquette at Work

November 15, 2008
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Diversity, Featured Article, HR & Business Administration

Spiritual practices, once taboo at work, are now commonplace. The media have carried stories for more than 20 years on how spiritual practices can increase integrity and purposefulness at work, while decreasing stress and burnout.

Organizations, though, still must decide how best to deal respectfully with such practices at work, given wide disagreement about how to practice religion or spirituality openly on the job.

Here are some guidelines I'd offer:

    1. Honor the universality of "spiritual" practices and concerns at work. Everyone has thoughts and feelings about purpose, values and existential questions, even if they do not define themselves as spiritual or religious. Spiritual expressions and practices (to use a term common to many faiths) vary from person to person, and they include people who are not members of recognized religious faiths.Consider a prominent attorney in San Francisco who's a great example of what Buddhists call "right livelihood." His practice of listening regularly to country music doesn't just de-stress him; it also gets him centered in his heart, from which integrity, kindness, compassion and good works flow freely. Tricia Molloy, author of Divine Wisdom at Work, says that when talking about spirituality at work, it is best to use terms like "universal" instead of "spiritual," or "reflection" instead of "meditation." Such language, she says, is less charged than religious language.

    2. Expand your concept of religious or spiritual diversity. Diversity goes beyond traditional definitions of Christian, Jew and Muslim, or even Reform, Conservative, or Hassidic Judaism. Inside every group there is a huge variety of beliefs and personal preferences. Some people love talking openly about matters of meaning; others want privacy. Some find solace and guidance in meditation; others are uncomfortable with silence.The biggest blessing you can give your employees is to see and honor them as they are, not who you fear them to be, or want them to be. Your job is not to approve their meaning and values, but to help them respectfully bring their meaning and values to work, for the benefit of all.

    3. Discover the relevance of etiquette to spiritual questions at work. The heart and soul of etiquette is about hospitality, or helping people feel welcome and respected. While more and more people hunger to increase meaning and positive values in the workplace, these topics have traditionally been discussed only in the realm of religion, which has long been taboo in polite conversation.Never underestimate the power of etiquette in this regard, warns Jodi R.R. Smith, director of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting in Marblehead, Massachusetts. People's discomfort, she says, chills the workplace dynamic. When people feel respected, they are more likely to be fully present and engaged, ready to roll up their sleeves for effective work.

    4. If your company is faith friendly, be friendly to all faiths. The use of quiet rooms, for example, is growing, thanks in part to employers' desire to accommodate Muslim prayer needs. Many companies allow conference rooms or other facilities to be used for discussions about spirit and religion.But faith friendliness does not mean faith favoritism. Ford Motor Co. has a good rule: If you want your faith group to be in Ford's Interfaith Alliance, you've got to support the ability of other groups to meet.

    5. Draw respectful, clear boundaries. Burning incense works in very few workplaces. Open proselytizing is never OK. Neither is pressuring employees to use any practice, such as meditation or yoga (even briefly in a training session), no matter how many studies have shown it to be useful. Religious symbols, art or sayings on the wall facing other employees are usually not acceptable.For personal items on desks, consistency and location are key. If you forbid a Jehovah's Witness to display The Watchtower , be ready to forbid the display of all other religious literature. You might allow such items on the area of a desk or cubicle that is obviously for the employee's own use (on a computer monitor stand, for example) versus a more public space (a shelf designed for the pickup and delivery of company mail).

    6. As a manager, do not push your viewpoint. No employee should have to face another person's symbols of faith during a performance review. Nor should members of a manager's staff feel pressured to be part of her faith group or gain benefits by doing so. For those reasons, a Christian manager who supports discussion groups on spirituality and work at her firm does not participate in them. Instead, she and a Jewish colleague have become discreet prayer partners.

    7. Defuse hot-button issues promptly. The workplace will always be filled with controversial issues. Some consider Halloween to be devil worship, while others find the celebration a cross-cultural morale builder. There's no easy answer here. Whatever the issue, kind and respectful action is wise. Find private, respectful ways to deal with employees. Smith describes a situation in which a new hire didn't realize other employees were offended by some sayings on his T-shirts. After a discussion with HR, he cheerfully agreed to save his vulgar shirts for the weekends.

    8. Use natural venues for exploring issues about spirituality and work. The organizational development field has long explored spirituality and work, driven by the difficulty of dealing with corporate cultural changes. Leadership, ethics, diversity, affinity groups, and wellness and employee assistance programs have long explored spiritual issues. The company cafeteria can feature the special foods of various celebrations—such as the Hindu event Dilawi, Hanukkah or Christmas—along with a statement from people of those faiths about how their traditions enrich their work life. Diversity discussions can include the wisdom that many religions offer when it comes to work. Ask people how their spirituality—by whatever name they call it—helps them be wiser and more compassionate at work. What can they learn from other viewpoints? What universal principles underlie the Buddhist concept of right livelihood or the Christian concept of vocation? How can Muslims inspire you to stay true to your values and best practices in the midst of the workday?

    9. Make integrity your bottom line. My dad, the late William McHenry, grew a lot from the experience of blowing the whistle against his embezzling boss. He only regretted that no one was attentive and caring enough to stop the boss while his wrongdoing was still small. During one foggy drive in the mountains with Dad, we had to crawl along so we could see the white lines that guided us safely through oncoming traffic without crashing off the mountain. We need to be like white lines to each other, he said, so we can guide each other to common safety and prosperity. To get through ethical fogs—whether caused by greed, panic or deadline pressure—we need to stop, reflect and base our actions on deeper wisdom than mere expedience. Integrity is like a muscle that needs to be exercised daily. I think of a carpenter's level and a plumb line, tools that have helped structure integrity into buildings for 5,000 years, as metaphors for being on true with myself and on the level with others.Integrity includes wholeness, a resonance between inner values and outer actions, and much more. It's about doing the best we can, flawed as we are. It's about remembering we can't be all things to everybody, we can't do everything at once and we're just as worthy of respect as anyone else.

    10. Before you implement any spirit and work initiatives, explore spiritual practice and work for yourself. Investigate many possibilities for workplace practices, such as stopping to bless your workday in the morning and release it in the evening. Discover which practices make you squirm, which inspire you. Notice your own awe, wonder, fears and vulnerability around spiritual issues. Notice the ways in which discussions about spirituality or religion are comfortable and inviting to you, and which are not.

Find a meditation or prayer partner, a special interest group, a faith group or friends with whom you can explore these issues. Develop the courage to speak authentically. More and more, we all want daily meaning as we earn our daily bread.

It's never been clearer that our prosperity and our lives depend not just on others' integrity at work, but also our own. Important leaders may take huge actions like passing new laws or infusing new capital into our shaking system. But in the end, it's in all of us to make the simple, soulful steps that turn workplace stress and burnout into wisdom and insight, and build a workplace culture that benefits us all.

-- Workforce Management Online, November 2008 -- Register Now!

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