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Cover Story: Matters of Faith

Take a proactive approach to accommodate workers' religious needs and minimize potential rifts.

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Umme-Hani Khan, 19, had been working at Abercrombie & Fitch’s Hollister store in San Mateo, Calif., for four months when a visiting district manager ordered the Muslim to remove her hijab, a religious headscarf. When she refused the order for religious reasons, Khan was fired for violating Abercrombie’s dress code.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on her behalf. Last September, a federal judge ruled that Abercrombie & Fitch was liable for religious discrimination. The company agreed to pay $71,000 to settle that case and a second one involving a Muslim teen in Oklahoma.

"No one should have to choose between keeping their faith and keeping their job," EEOC General Counsel David Lopez said at the time.

More than a third of U.S. workers report observing or being subjected to religious bias at work, according to a survey of more than 2,000 adults released in September 2013 by the New York City-based Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. The survey was conducted for the center by Public Religion Research LLC.

As the U.S. workforce grows more diverse, HR professionals should expect an even greater level of conflict over employees’ religious differences in the next decade, says Joyce Dubensky, chief executive officer of the Tanenbaum Center.

Meanwhile, multinational organizations are looking at a global talent pool in which Christians make up just one-third of the prospective talent.

"The need for employers to be aware of differing needs, expectations and traditions of various faith groups has never been more important," says Eric Peterson, senior consultant at Cook Ross Inc. and former manager for diversity and inclusion at the Society for Human Resource Management.

The good news is that there is something HR professionals can do to minimize conflicts. By adopting policies and practices that respect all religious beliefs, and by accommodating employees’ beliefs when possible, Dubensky says, HR professionals can improve worker morale and increase productivity while reducing the risk of legal problems.

"The data is very clear that when companies are addressing religion—when they are actually tackling it head-on and not pretending it’s not there—their employees are happier, and [the companies] are more likely to attract the best and the brightest," she says.

Components of Company Diversity Policies and ProgramsComponents of Company Diversity Policies and Programs

(click on image for a larger version of this chart)

Trends in Religion

Religion is often an important aspect of a person’s identity. A 2012 Gallup poll found that 69 percent of people in the U.S. consider themselves "very" or "moderately" religious.

The U.S. remains a majority-Christian nation. About 77 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian, including Protestants, Catholics and Mormons, according to Gallup’s random sample of 326,721 adults nationwide. Another 5 percent identify with a non-Christian religion, such as Judaism or Islam. Eighteen percent have no religious affiliation.

Though the number of non-Christians in the U.S. is small, immigration trends are causing an upswing in some minority faiths. Many of today’s immigrants are Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs or members of other faiths.

It Pays to Be Accommodating

The number of religious-discrimination claims filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has almost doubled since 2000, totaling 3,811 in 2012 and representing about 4 percent of all claims filed with the commission.

Payouts increased from $5.5 million to $9.9 million—and that doesn’t include the private lawsuits and claims filed under state law.

“Employers have to recognize that the EEOC is paying more attention to possible religious discrimination in the workplace, and some employees are probably more aware of their rights to seek accommodations of their religious beliefs,” says Houston-based attorney Kevin Troutman, who spent 17 years as an HR professional.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on their religion and requires employers to grant “reasonable accommodations” based on the employees’ “sincerely held” religious beliefs. It applies to employers with 15 or more workers.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a widely held religious belief as long as this person holds the belief,” Troutman says.

Employers would benefit from having a written policy on religious accommodations similar to the policy for considering accommodation requests from employees with disabilities, Troutman says.

In both cases, the employer should listen carefully to the employee’s request and consider any options. Then document the request, the analysis, what options were considered and the decision.

When employers run into legal problems, it’s often because “they haven’t done a good job at documenting the steps that they went through to arrive at whatever their decision was,” Troutman says.

Los Angeles-based attorney Brian S. Inamine says HR professionals shouldn’t take a cookie-cutter approach to accommodation requests. “If someone comes to you with a religion you’ve never heard of, you can ask the person for information. Spark a dialogue,” Inamine advises. “Hopefully, the dialogue will lead to some accommodation.”

He recalls a creative resolution by one company to address the religious needs of an employee who had a Native American religious symbol tattooed on his neck. Company policy banned exposed tattoos. The compromise: He grew his hair longer to cover the tattoo during work hours.

Supervisors should be trained to treat all requests for religious accommodations with respect and to immediately consult with the HR team for guidance, both lawyers advise.

A growing share of legal immigrants in the past two decades came from Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The share of Christians has declined from 68 percent to 61 percent in the past 20 years, while the share of immigrants of minority faiths climbed from 19 percent to 25 percent, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. The share of Muslims doubled, reaching 10 percent of legal immigrants in 2012, while the share of Hindus increased from 3 percent to 7 percent.

The Whole Self

Talking about religion has traditionally been considered taboo in public settings, including the workplace. Even many HR professionals have been reluctant to broach the topic.

For one thing, "religion at work means so many things to so many people," says Douglas Hicks, provost and religion professor at Colgate University and author of Religion and the Workplace (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

"But where you have employees in the workplace, you have religion in the workplace—there’s no avoiding it," Hicks says.

Religious Preferences in the U.S. 

Some HR practitioners see potential problems in encouraging religious expression but fail to see its potential benefits, says David W. Miller, director of Princeton University’s Faith & Work Initiative.

Miller challenges HR professionals to consider the true meaning of the word "inclusive."

"If you really mean ‘Bring your whole self to work,’ how can you with any intellectual consistency say ‘We may not mean everything’?" he asks.

"Just because it’s thorny and awkward and potentially laden with some issues doesn’t mean you don’t do it if it’s the right thing. You just have to figure out how you manage it," says Miller, author of God at Work (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Miller advocates a faith-friendly approach that shows an employer respects all employees’ faith traditions, including atheism.

By welcoming employees’ religious expression, "you can have employees who have greater engagement, greater loyalty, lower absenteeism, greater creativity," Miller says. "And there’s growing evidence also that it becomes a differentiator when people are trying to decide between two different employers."

Moreover, for many workers, their religious beliefs and values are motivating factors. More than a third of working Americans said they routinely pursue excellence in their work because of their faith, according to a 2010 poll conducted by Gallup for Baylor University, a private Christian institution in Texas.

Increasing Flash Points

A majority of workers responding to the Tanenbaum survey said Muslims face more discrimination in the workplace than other groups, a perception that is borne out by EEOC figures showing that 20 percent of the complaints it investigates each year involve bias against Muslims.

While half of non-Christians surveyed believe that their employers ignore their religious needs, Tanenbaum researchers were surprised that almost 6 in 10white evangelical Protestants believe that discrimination against Christians—the majority faith in the U.S.—has become as big a problem as discrimination against religious minorities.

The December Dilemma

Year-end holiday festivities can cause flare-ups at a time when religious sensitivities are high. Here are some common areas of conflict and how to avoid them:

  • Company parties. If you’re planning the holiday party at a local bar on Friday night, an Orthodox Jew who needs to go home for Shabbat can’t attend. Or a Muslim employee who doesn’t drink might feel uncomfortable. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate holidays and might feel excluded, and others might perceive these individuals to be aloof or disrespectful because they don’t attend. Such misperceptions might even affect a person’s career advancement, says Joyce Dubensky, chief executive officer of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.
  • Food and drink. At company-sponsored events, ensure that nonalcoholic beverages are served, preferably in a separate location from the bar. Provide food that meets employees’ kosher, halal and vegetarian dietary needs.
  • Office decorations. Seek ways to make decorations inclusive, perhaps by adding educational cards describing the religious tradition to others.
  • Gift exchanges. Instead of a “Secret Santa” gift exchange (St. Nicholas may be associated with Christianity), consider a grab bag or book exchange.
  • Toy drives. Ensure that the charity selected as the recipient of donations is inclusive. One company found out belatedly that its selected charity had an anti-gay agenda, Dubensky says.

And almost half of all atheists surveyed said they think people look down on their beliefs.

The survey results point to two potential "hot spots" of future conflict that employers should prepare for, Dubensky says:

White evangelicals vs. the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. White evangelicals, who are more likely to talk about their faith at work than other religious groups, may speak out against workplace policies that they believe violate their religious beliefs, such as health benefits for same-sex couples, she says.

Jeff Mateer, general counsel at Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm advocating for religious liberty, says he receives about one call a week from an employee who holds a traditional view of marriage. One evangelical Christian at a Fortune 500 company has asked her employer for a religious accommodation that would exempt her from diversity training because the content violates her religious beliefs, Mateer says.

"We’re heading to conflicts between corporate America and evangelical Christians if their religious beliefs are not accommodated," Mateer predicts.

When such conflicts arise, HR professionals should remind employees that they aren’t being asked to change their values and beliefs, advises Deb Dagit, a diversity consultant who previously served as chief diversity officer for pharmaceutical company Merck.

"It’s really important to focus on behavior versus values," Dagit says. Make it clear that the employer is asking simply that employees "support a fair and equitable environment where people are compensated the same regardless of their sexual orientation."

White evangelicals vs. atheists. Conflict also may arise between white evangelicals and atheists, who are beginning to express concerns over the way they are treated. Half of white evangelical Protestant workers said they share their beliefs with co-workers, compared with 22 percent of workers overall, according to the Tanenbaum survey. Nearly 9 in 10 white evangelicals said they are "somewhat" or "very" comfortable when the topic of religion comes up at work, but 43 percent of atheists and agnostics said they feel uncomfortable when religion is discussed.

"That is a tension point, and we expect to see it escalate. We expect to see more complaints about proselytizing," Dubensky says.

’Tis the Season

Many religious holidays and observances take place in the fall and winter, so HR professionals need to be especially alert to employees’ religious needs during those months, Dubensky says.

"It’s a time when religious identities become more salient. That raises the prospect of tension," she observes. "People may need some flexible time and the ability to use that time for different reasons."

In fact, the most common problems cited by workers in the Tanenbaum survey involve their employers’ failure to provide religious accommodations. The survey found that:

24 percent witnessed employees being required to work on Sabbath observances or religious holidays.

13 percent reported attending company events that didn’t include kosher, halal or vegetarian food options.

17 percent of non-Christian workers reported being discouraged from (or witnessing others being discouraged from) wearing facial hair or clothing that is part of their religious identity.

Only 14 percent of workers reported that these problems were shared with managers or HR professionals at their companies. Even then, nearly a third of those respondents said the company did nothing; 21 percent said the company issued a warning to the responsible party, and 20 percent said the company changed or adapted its policy.

"I’ve found, personally, if you sit down with people and listen to what they are concerned about, often there is not any difficulty in accommodating their request," Dagit says.

Just 44 percent of survey respondents said their employer has flexible work hours to permit religious observances or prayer, while 21 percent said their company has a policy that allows workers to "swap holidays."

While 42 percent said their employer has materials explaining its policy on religious discrimination, only 14 percent said their employer has programs to teach employees about religious diversity.

By taking a more proactive stance, HR professionals can help prevent thoughtless or hurtful words and actions while sending a message that religious intolerance and harassment don’t conform to organizational values, Peterson says.

"Most people don’t want to be insensitive to differing faith groups. The most pervasive issue here is not overt religious bigotry but, rather, blind spots," he says. "When we don’t know what we don’t know, there’s no way to create the kind of inclusive culture that most organizations are seeking."

To begin to address religious diversity, Peterson, Dubensky and others recommend that HR professionals:

  • Educate all employees on various religious traditions and holidays to help improve understanding.
  • Provide clear instructions for managers on how to handle requests for religious accommodations.
  • Inform employees of their right to religious accommodations and how to make requests.
  • Consult a multifaith calendar before scheduling companywide events.

"Asking an observant Jew to attend an important all-day staff meeting on Rosh Hashana or issuing a pantsuit uniform to a woman of the Pentecostal tradition can be a clear violation of the Civil Rights Act, and these things happen all the time—not out of malice but out of ignorance," Peterson says.

Some companies offer floating holidays or flexible hours to provide employees paid time off to observe a holiday that’s not recognized companywide. In a Society for Human Resource Management survey of 606 HR professionals released in October 2013, 38 percent said their company offers floating holidays.

Employees at companies that provide flexible hours for religious observance are more than twice as likely to say they look forward to coming to work, the Tanenbaum survey found.

Faith-Based Groups

Some employers not only allow but also encourage religious expression at work.

American Airlines has three faith-based employee resource groups—a Christian group, a Jewish group and a Muslim group—all formed in the 1990s at the initiation of employees.

"We truly believe that when people come to work, they don’t leave their beliefs at the door," says Irene del Corral, senior specialist for diversity strategies at American Airlines and liaison to the company’s groups. "You can’t walk into your work area and stop being a single mom or a gentleman caring for elderly parents. And you can’t stop being a Christian or a Muslim."

Plus, she adds, "we find that when you allow people to get together for a common interest … it just makes people feel appreciated."

When the HR team receives religious accommodation requests, its members frequently go back to the faith-based groups to get a better understanding of what is and isn’t required by a particular religion, del Corral says.

The three faith-based groups work together to sponsor "lunch-and-learn" seminars on religious customs and traditions for all three faiths. They also set up displays to highlight and educate others about their faiths.

On the business side, the Christian employee resource group has helped the airline’s sales group connect with Christian churches and conventions for group travel discounts, which brought $900,000 in sales last year, del Corral says.

The Muslim employee group has made educational presentations to flight attendants to explain Muslim traditions, including the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The Muslim group also worked to reserve prayer rooms at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport for Muslim passengers and employees and researched vendors to provide halal meals on flights.

The Jewish employee group has worked to display menorahs, along with Christmas trees, at major airports served by American Airlines.

Chaplain Services

In 2000, Tyson Foods Chairman John Tyson established a chaplain program for the company’s employees because "he recognized the importance of faith in the lives of our people," explains Rodney Nagel, senior vice president of human resources operations.

The company now employs more than 120 chaplains, mostly part time, to serve 265 of its more than 400 facilities in the U.S. and Mexico.

"This is not faith-based but faith-friendly," Nagel explains. "Our workforce is very diverse and is made up of a lot of faith groups and people without any particular faith affiliation. So we wanted to make sure we could serve them all because that’s one of our cultural tenets—we take care of each other."

Tyson Foods has chaplains representing 27 different Christian faith groups. More than half of the chaplains are bilingual. They work with employees of all faiths as well as those who have no connection to any religion.

"We still reach out to leaders of other faiths, such as Islam, for consultation on matters involving employees of those faiths," Nagel says.

Chaplains are included in employee orientation at some locations, where they talk about the importance of treating one another with respect. They also make weekly visits to different shifts working in the company’s plants and offices.

"They have helped us not only when our team members have some crisis in their lives but also when they have some joy in their lives," says Nagel, adding that the chaplains have played a role in improving employee retention, as well.The company’s turnover rate dropped about 50 percent between 2003 and 2012; Nagel attributes that in part to the chaplain program.

Whatever methods an organization chooses to embrace religious diversity, HR professionals should focus on how those methods link to business goals, advises Dagit, the former Merck chief diversity officer.

"Your ability to attract and retain and develop the very best talent is contingent upon your being able to include and embrace faith as a central identity for many people," she says.

Dori Meinert is a senior writer for HR Magazine.

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