Faith and Religion: The Last Office Taboo

DiversityInc, December 23rd, 2010

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By Sam Ali

Why is religion at work one of the last taboos?

The continuous controversy over religious accommodations in the workplace, religious dress at the office and whether to go forward on a religious employee-resource group concerns many companies, both in HR and in legal. How does religious inclusivity increase employee engagement, retention and productivity?

Since the 1980s, companies that value diversity and inclusion have encouraged workers with common interests to organize around race, sexual orientation and gender at work in employee-resource groups. These companies assert this policy of inclusion has helped bolster their bottom line: recruitment, retention and productivity have improved as employees feel more connected to the workplace and to the marketplace.

Yet while many progressive companies have recognized the value of diversity and inclusion, they often are reluctant to recognize the value of religious employee-resource groups. About 20 percent of The 2010 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity® report some interest in faith-based employee groups, but only a handful of companies have successfully instituted them. Two companies that do this best, albeit very differently, are American Express, No. 12 in the DiversityInc Top 50, and Ford Motor Co., No. 44. The American Express model allows different faith-based groups to be created. The Ford model creates one larger interfaith group, which covers all religions. Ford's Interfaith Network (FIN), which is frequently cited as a model for inclusive religious-employee groups, began in 2001. Eight faith traditions are currently represented on the board of FIN, but this can vary. Current groups are: four kinds of Christianity (Evangelical, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Latter-day Saint), Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. In addition, members from other faiths, including Paganism and Zoroastrianism, have joined since FIN began.

The business benefits of religious ERGs are similar to those that revolve around other employee-resource groups. But all too often, companies are reluctant to broach the issue of religion in the workplace, an action that many experts, such as David Miller, founding director of the University Faith & Work Initiative, say is a mistake.

"Faith at work is a bona fide social movement. 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. People want to bring their whole selves to work, and for many, that includes their faith," Miller said when he was in his previous role as executive director of Yale University's Center for Faith and Culture.

Are the Tides Shifting?

American Express, considered a pioneer in the field, started its first faith-based network in the mid-1990s. Kerrie Peraino, chief diversity officer at American Express, says she frequently fields calls from other companies asking for her insight into how to start faith-based ERGs. And lately, she has seen an uptick in the number of inquiries.

"My phone rings often to talk about this from companies who have either received requests from employees to form [faith-based ERGs] or from companies interested in proactively seeing if their employees want to form one," she says. "And that has increased over the last 24 months. In my non-statistically valid way, there is an increase in interest."

Peraino believes faith-based ERGs can be a competitive differentiator. "For companies that have the culture and the readiness to do something like this, I would encourage it," she says. "Don't shy away from it. If your employees want it and you have the cultural context to make it happen, it can be a great benefit to the company in terms of insight, on both the employee base and the consumer base."

Overview of the Law

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals because of their religion in hiring, firing and other terms and conditions of employment. Title VII also requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of an employee or prospective employee, unless doing so would create an undue hardship upon the employer.

In 2009, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received 3,386 charges of religious discrimination, an increase of more than 87 percent from a decade ago and up 37 percent from just five years earlier.

A Nation of Believers

Beyond issues of legality, however, religion remains an important part of life in the United States. According to the Gallup Organization, 95 percent of Americans say they believe in God or a universal spirit, and nearly 50 percent say they talked about their religious faith at work that day.

At the same time, religious practices in the workplace are becoming increasingly diverse. Increased immigration by Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and other groups is creating a more religiously diverse workforce that goes far beyond the traditional Christian/Jewish traditions, according to a 2008 report published in HR Magazine.

"In a 2001 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding in New York, 36 percent of HR professionals reported an increase in the religious diversity of their employees during the previous five years," the report says. "In SHRM's 2008 'Religion and Corporate Culture: Accommodating Religious Diversity in the Workplace' survey

report, 64 percent said their organizations have some degree of religious or spiritual diversity." In 2010, 74 percent of The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity offered onsite religious accommodations, such as prayer rooms, compared with 8 percent of companies nationally. Meanwhile, 76 percent of DiversityInc Top 50 companies offered floating religious holidays versus 34 percent of companies nationally.

By creating an inclusive environment in which employees can integrate their religious practices into their day-to-day jobs, companies such as Aetna (No. 30 in the DiversityInc Top 50) say they are building loyalty, raising engagement and increasing productivity.

Companies That Embrace Spirituality Do Better

In his forward to the book "A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America," Warren Bennis, the founding chairman of the University of Southern California's Leadership Institute, writes that individuals and organizations that perceive themselves as more spiritual do better. "They are more productive, creative and adaptive," he writes. "The people in the organization are more energized and productive because work isn't solely about stock options and vacations and coffee breaks. Spiritual organizations are animated by meaning, by wholeness and by seeing their work connected to events and people beyond themselves."

The book's authors, Elizabeth A. Denton and Ian Mitroff, found that spirituality could be the ultimate competitive advantage. According to Denton and Mitroff, organizations that identify more strongly with spirituality or that have a greater sense of spirituality have employees who:

  • Are less fearful of their organization

  • Are far less likely to compromise their basic beliefs and values in the workplace

  • Perceive their organizations as significantly more profitable

  • Report that they can bring significantly more of their complete selves to work, specifically their creativity and intelligence

Positive Influence on Consumer Brand

"Being viewed as 'faith-friendly' carries implications of trust and ethical behavior [and] can even have a powerful positive influence on consumer perceptions of a corporate brand," says Patricia Aburdene, co-author of the 1990 bestseller "Megatrends 2010."

Aburdene sees faith at work as an important trend in business. In "Megatrends 2010," she identifies "spirituality in business" as one of seven top business trends in the coming decade. Peraino says that increasingly, faith-based ERGs at American Express are aligning with the firm's global strategy around talent and market segmentation. "On the talent and market side, our faith-based networks are engaged in being a welcoming place for new employees of the same affinity," she says. "They help us recruit and orient talent. And on the market side, our faith-based networks are helping us to better understand the consumer base and, in some cases, even tailor products and services."

A good example of how American Express taps into its faith-based ERGs can be seen in the way it creates, designs and markets gift cards during holiday gift-giving seasons, Peraino says.

"The business will consult with faith-based networks to talk about the imaging on the gift cards and the celebratory season to ensure that it is striking the right chord to resonate with the consumer base," Peraino says.

Asked what advice she would offer to companies thinking of incorporating faith in the workplace, Peraino says: "My greatest piece of advice–and you can imagine I get an awful lot of calls from companies considering faith-based networks and whether they are going to go down this path–is your company culture needs to be conducive to this," she says. "If you have a relationship-based culture where values, like teamwork and integrity, are critical, then you have fertile ground for religious networks. If those components are not within your culture, then it can be more difficult for them to form and thrive."

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