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HR Magazine - August 2000: Workplace Chaplains

HR Magazine, August 2000

Vol. 45, No. 8

Can chaplains help boost employee morale, retention and productivity -- without promoting religion? Some HR professionals say 'yes.'

Imagine coming to work and finding that an employee has lost five family members, including an unborn child, in a tragic car accident. Where would you turn to help the employee cope? Employee assistance programs and bereavement leave policies help, but when this crisis hit an employee of the City of Lufkin, Texas, the city’s director of HR and civil service, David Koonce, had another resource at his disposal: a workplace chaplain.

The chaplain helped the employee find a church for the funeral, set up the service and negotiate a lower price for the funeral and caskets. But most importantly, says Koonce, having a chaplain on hand “put that employee’s mind at ease.”

While workplace chaplains often can be found in police and fire departments, other employers have tended to avoid sponsoring chaplains. But employers that use chaplains say these individuals can act as employee sounding boards, provide counseling, guide employees to other counselors and help in situations ranging from office closures to employee arrests. What’s more, these employers believe, chaplains can help the bottom line by improving morale and retention.

There are at least 4,000 workplace chaplains, also called corporate or business chaplains, in the U.S. today, according to Mark Cress, founder and president of Inner Active Ministries, a nonprofit organization in Wake Forest, N.C., that provides chaplains to businesses. Cress predicts that over the next decade, the number of chaplains serving employers could swell to 30,000.

Do Chaplains Belong at Work?

Some employers are likely to balk at the idea of using a corporate chaplain. “There are still a lot of skeptics in the workplace,” says Gil Stricklin, founder and president of Marketplace Ministries Inc., in Dallas, a not-for-profit organization that provides chaplaincy services to businesses. “If you mention chaplains or religion or faith they say: ‘How can you take religion to the workplace? That’s un-American. We don’t mix religion and work. We don’t mix church and state.’”

One person who casts a skeptical eye on workplace chaplains is Annie Laurie Gaylor, spokeswoman for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The foundation, based in Madison, Wis., describes itself as an association of freethinkers, atheists and agnostics. “Our concern,” says Gaylor, “would mainly be that there could be workplace pressure, coercion, harassment or a feeling that your job could be endangered” if you disagree with having a workplace chaplain.

Gaylor adds: “I think that religion creates walls between people and that it is divisive in the workplace because everybody has different beliefs. There is this ecumenical idea that we all believe in the same god. Some of us don’t believe in any god at all.”

Martin Rutte, president of Livelihood, a management consulting firm in Santa Fe, N.M., and a co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work (Health Communication, 1996), advises, “HR people need to have their antennae tuned very sensitively to these issues.” He adds that employees may be concerned that chaplains will proselytize or try to impose their religious views on others.

But providers of corporate chaplains say proselytizing should not be a concern. Diana Dale, a chaplain and head of the National Institute of Business and Industrial Chaplains (NIBIC) in Houston, says that, as a corporate chaplain, “you’re to work interculturally and across faith groups. You’re not there to proselytize or in any way to push your particular orientation even though you’re grounded in your own faith.” This, she points out, is a model that can be traced back to the use of chaplains in military settings.

Stricklin also says religious beliefs shouldn’t become a factor. “People don’t hire us because we’re religious or they’re religious,” he says. “They hire us because they see that we can fulfill a role that no other person on the executive corporate staff is fulfilling. We can do some things that nobody else can do.” For example, a chaplain might go with an employee to traffic court, perform a funeral or marriage service or simply provide encouragement to an employee who’s having a bad day, he says.

Stricklin’s observations are echoed by Heather Butler, HR director for DeKalb Office Environments in Alpharetta, Ga. Butler says the company uses a chaplaincy because “we saw a need that we, as managers, were unable to fill. As director of HR I can’t be all over the place all of the time. Our corporate chaplain has been able to attend funerals of our associates and their children, to help with funeral arrangements and to be present on behalf of the company during the ceremonies.” DeKalb, which employs about 130 people, has used chaplains for about a year.

Like Butler, Koonce appreciates the fact that chaplains can be there for employees when HR can’t. “An organization can’t be hands-on with every employee all the time,” he says. “We have access to them eight to 10 hours a day on the job site, but, when they’re someplace else, they can still access these chaplains.”

Although Butler now endorses chaplaincy programs, at first she was skeptical. “My initial thought was ‘we’re going to have some person walking around spouting fire and brimstone,’” she says.

But she was pleasantly surprised. “Our chaplain doesn’t walk around with a Bible in his hand,” she says. “He doesn’t have a cross. He doesn’t wear a collar. He wears khaki pants and polo shirts with the logo of the organization that he represents. He doesn’t quote scriptures and that kind of thing, or try to convert people. His approach is more on the spiritual or emotional level. It’s really been quite wonderful.”

There is a possibility that some chaplains may bring a level of religious fervor to the workplace that you feel is inappropriate. But with a little due diligence, you can weed out undesirable candidates. (See “Choosing a Chaplain” on page 60.)

Butler recognizes that some employees may be uncomfortable with a workforce chaplain, so she suggests surveying employees to determine whether this is a service they feel they need or want. Some workforces may welcome the added benefits that chaplaincy services can provide; others may not.

In particular, non-Christian employees may feel uncomfortable. In the workplace, employees who are not Christian may feel left out “because the United States is pretty much a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant environment and it’s very difficult for the majority to get the sense of how religion is different” for non-Christian employees, says Nechama Goldberg, a rabbi, HR manager and director of administration and finance at Hebrew College in Brookline, Mass.

Goldberg advises employers to require that workplace chaplains have some training in comparative religions or some experience working with people of different faiths. As an alternative, the employer could consider having a non-Christian religious leader come in from time to time to supplement the chaplaincy program and address the needs of minority religious populations, Goldberg says.

The service providers interviewed for this article offer only Christian chaplains, but claim to be non-denominational and to work with non-Christian employees.

And, Cress adds, “We do network with leaders of other faiths in assisting employees in crisis.”

“If the employee requested it, we’d find [a minister] of another faith,” says Eric Stricklin, a Marketplace Ministries chaplain. For example, when an employee of a Texas firm died suddenly, his widow asked the Marketplace Ministries chaplain to find a Buddhist monk to conduct a service. “We thought we’d have to go to California to find a Buddhist monk, but we found one in Fort Worth,” Eric Stricklin says. “He conducted a 45-minute service and, at the end of it, the chaplain got up and talked about what the employee meant to people.”

A Complementary Benefit

Employers also may worry that hiring a chaplain might infringe on the company’s relationship with its employee assistance program (EAP) provider. But EAPs and chaplains meet different needs, according to Gil Stricklin.

“There are some people who are not going to identify with a chaplain and there are some who are not going to identify with a secular psychologist,” Stricklin says. “There are also some times when I am not qualified to work with a person that has a really deep emotional need, but I do have enough training to recognize that need and recommend help from other resources.”

Cress agrees that EAPs and chaplaincy programs don’t have to be mutually exclusive. “We like to work with EAPs if a company has one,” he says.

“We like to refer into the EAP for the services that they offer, particularly in the areas of substance abuse, financial assistance, long-term grief or domestic counseling.”

In particular, chaplaincy programs seem to become more popular whenever there is a crisis to respond to. “Each time there’s a violence issue in the workplace where someone is shot and killed, for example, we get a number of calls from different parts of the country from companies considering having a chaplain come on board,” Cress says.

Dale says, “Many times I’ve been called in when a company has had either an explosion or a death.”

However, she points out that she is also called in for less threatening situations, such as “when there is a major conflict between two departments or between individuals within a department.” Dale also was called in to help defuse stress when a Houston plant was closing.

Dollars and Sense

Employers who turn to corporate chaplains may do so not only out of concern about their employees’ mental health but also out of a desire to boost productivity, morale and retention.

Koonce says, “If we can reach the employee from a mental health perspective, and use the chaplaincy program to do that, then we believe that will have a positive impact on lost time issues, sick time, personal days off, absenteeism of any sort and health insurance cost reduction. … We’re hoping this program will help us reduce our cost of health insurance and of other types of off-work lost time issues.”

Butler says that DeKalb’s program “shows that the organization cares.” It also seems to pay dividends in terms of recruitment and retention. “I think that, because we have this program in place, we’re considered more progressive and it’s one of the things that we’ve been able to use to attract and retain our associates,” says Butler.

“I can honestly say that it has been very helpful,” says Len Kluft, HR team leader for Storr Office Environments in Raleigh, N.C. “There are just dozens of circumstances over the last two years where [the chaplain] and I have come up with solutions that probably would not have been as good if I had come up with the solutions myself.”

Costs and Confidentiality

Most providers of chaplaincy services charge a flat fee based on the size of the company, the number of employees and the number of shifts worked. Marketplace Ministries, for example, charges organizations based on the number of employees served. Contracts vary from the minimum charge of $210 a month (the smallest company served has only three employees), to the more than $500,000 a year paid by Marketplace Ministries’ largest client, Pilgrim’s Pride, a Pittsburgh, Texas, chicken processing company with 12,000 employees. These charges are reviewed every six months and adjusted to account for increases or decreases in the workforce.

As part of the service provided by Marketplace Ministries, companies receive a detailed report of the services chaplains provide. But the reports to employers don’t breach employee confidentiality.

However, chaplains who learn that an employee broke the law will not keep this information to themselves, Stricklin says. “If an employee tells a chaplain that he was drinking last night and he beat his 5-year-old-boy, that’s a felony and either that employee is going to turn himself in, or the chaplain is going to turn him in,” he says. “There are some issues that are not up for debate in terms of confidentiality.”

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of The HR Book: Human Resources Management for Business (Self-Counsel Business Series, 1999).


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