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Companies Face Risks by Favoring One Religion

A company that favors certain religious beliefs runs the risk of lawsuits, turnover and reduced productivity if some of its employees do not share those beliefs. That’s why experts suggest organizations create an environment that respects all forms of belief and non-belief.

It is fairly easy to find nonreligious organizations in the United States that favor a particular faith.

A notable example is Trijicon, which manufactures optical sighting devices for firearms. The company received unexpected media attention in January 2010 when ABC News reported that coded references to Bible passages had been inscribed on high-powered rifle sights sold to the U.S. military. “The sights are used by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the training of Iraqi and Afghan soldiers,” the news outlet reported, suggesting this was problematic because U.S. military rules prohibit the proselytizing of any religion in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The company has since removed the references from equipment sent to the military, according to a Sept. 21, 2010, article in Crain’s Detroit Business, “but still includes them in commercial sales to hunters, collectors and others.”

Company values

In some cases companies disclose their beliefs publicly by including language in a statement of values.

For example, one of Trijicon’s corporate values is “morality.” According to the company web site, the company believes “that America is great when its people are good. This goodness has been based on biblical standards throughout our history and we will strive to follow those morals.”

Dacor Kitchen Appliances in Costa Mesa, Calif., has just one company value, according to its web site: “To honor God in all that we do.”

Request Foods, a frozen food packaging company in Holland, Mich., places “honor God” at the top of its list of corporate values but adds: “We are dedicated to placing priority on Christian principles in every aspect of our business.”

Request Foods did not respond to questions from SHRM Online about how those principles are demonstrated in the day-to-day operations of the business and if they employ any non-Christians.

Fast food restaurant Chick-fil-A—well known for its “closed on Sunday” policy—notes that its corporate purpose is “to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.”

A company spokesperson declined to explain whether employees are required to affirm their support of the company’s purpose as a condition of employment.

Acting on values

The mere presence of a value statement that suggests that the organization follows a specific belief system is one thing, but forcing employees to participate in religious activities is another.

On Nov. 18, 2009, The Washington Post reported that Richard Miniter, a former editor of the Washington Times, had filed a discrimination complaint against the paper, saying that he was “coerced” into attending a Unification Church religious ceremony that culminated in a mass wedding conducted by the church's leader, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

Miniter, an Episcopalian, subsequently settled his suit, with undisclosed terms, according to a Sept. 2, 2010, Politico report.

Cases such as these are common.

On Nov. 10, 2008, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced that the University of Phoenix, Inc. had entered a consent decree for $1,875,000 to resolve allegations of religious bias against non-Mormons.

“It is the EEOC’s belief that, for many years, the University of Phoenix condoned an environment in which Mormon managers felt free to engage in favoritism toward their Mormon employees,” said EEOC Phoenix Regional Attorney Mary Jo O’Neill in a statement.

And, as SHRM Online reported on July 20, 2010, a Yuma, Ariz., hotel spent $75,000 to settle a charge alleging that hotel manager Carlos Paredes “tried to impose his personal religious beliefs on employees and derided the religious beliefs of some of the workers.”

In March 2010, Jeanne Goldberg, a senior attorney advisor in the EEOC’s Office of Legal Counsel, told SHRM Online that U.S.-based employers can be charged with discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “if a business owner requires an employee to sign a statement saying they agree with the company’s religious missions and values or if a company fails to make accommodations to excuse nonbelievers from attending workplace Bible study, religious services or other observances.”

Legal Trouble Is One of Many Risks

Companies might avoid legal trouble if no one reports their activities to authorities. But there are other forms of negative fallout that organizations might encounter if they create a pro-religion culture.

“However noble or well-meaning these ‘religious’ corporate responsibility programs are, they create a very hostile work environment for the nonreligious or nominally religious,” said Jen Hancock, author of the Humanist Approach to Happiness (CreateSpace, 2010).

Mary Cheddie, senior vice president of human resources at Interval International and former member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Board of Directors, said she experienced the negative fallout of such an environment firsthand while working for a company that owned a division that was, in her words, “very religious.”

“The founders implied that employees needed to attend the religious group's weekend events and donate money to them,” Cheddie told SHRM Online. A chaplain visited the office weekly, she added, and employees often arrived at work to find notes on their desks that “quoted certain religious principles.”

Yet when employees who didn’t embrace the company’s religious beliefs began to resign, the founders realized that they were losing valuable talent. Eventually, they changed their approach. “What they thought had set them apart from other companies—the religious viewpoints and activities—was really nothing more than their personal preferences,” Cheddie explained.

Yet even those who are religious can experience discomfort when a certain set of beliefs appears to dominate an organization.

Ann Wilkins, a Catholic, said she was uncomfortable when she worked briefly for Administaff, a professional employer organization, because those in top management positions were born-again Christians. “I was at a dinner where they made a big deal of thanking ‘our Lord Jesus,’ saying they knew it wasn't politically correct but they didn't give a darn,” she told SHRM Online. “It was very uncomfortable for the Jewish folks in the room, which in turn made me uncomfortable.”

Workers who are different religiously from others in the workplace are likely to have poor experiences at work, according to George Cunningham, a Texas A&M University researcher whose specialties include workplace and diversity issues.

Cunningham collected job data from 260 managers across the U.S. and asked questions about religious beliefs, practices and policies in the workplace. Religious practices include wearing or displaying religious items, praying, or playing religious music.

The results indicated that religious beliefs brought into a workplace setting can impact the way people experience work and might impact productivity.

“The study shows that if you think your religious beliefs make you a little bit ‘different’ at work, you're probably right—they do make you different, and you are less likely to fit in,” Cunningham said in a statement issued April 6, 2010. “It also shows that the reverse can be true; when you are religiously similar to your colleagues, you are more likely to fit into the workplace and be satisfied with your job.”

Many Types of Belief

"People tend to bring their religious beliefs to work with the assumption that everyone else has pretty similar belief systems, but that's just not always the case," Cunningham noted. "We are now a country of multiple beliefs and multiple religions, and not all of them agree with each other,” he said of the United States.

That’s why Amanda Haddaway, director of HR and marketing at Folcomer Equipment Corp., suggested that companies “support a culture of openness, rather than a culture that elevates one religious belief or religious brand over others.”

Lee Gardenswartz, Ph.D., and Anita Rowe, Ph.D., partners in the management consulting firm of Gardenswartz & Rowe in Los Angeles and authors of Managing Diversity: A Complete Desk Reference & Planning Guide, 3rd edition (SHRM, 2010), encourage organizations to clarify, by policy, what employees can and cannot do when it comes to religion at work, including the use of religious messages, holiday celebrations and time off for religious practices.

If a chapel is provided, it should be nonsectarian and available for all employees to use, for example, and if group prayers are standard practice before meetings, they can be replaced by a moment of silence in order to keep from excluding employees with different beliefs.

One Religiously Inclusive Organization

“We allow people to identify by their religion/faith as part of their online diversity profile, should they choose to do so,” said Michael Bach, national director of diversity, equity and inclusion for KPMG LLP Canada. The list of 18 options includes major religious groups such as Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu as well as Jain, Zoroastrian, Wiccan and Shamanic. Other options include agnostic, atheist and nonreligious. “While the majority identify as Christian (we don’t break it out any further), I have one person who identifies as Jain and sent me an e-mail after saying how much she appreciated that I included her faith,” Bach told SHRM Online.

Reflection rooms are available in all major offices across Canada, Bach added. “These rooms are open to anyone and are not decorated with any specific iconography,” he said. “While the Muslim population uses them the most, we have a number of people from other faiths who use them as well.”

KPMG Canada offers “Educate and Celebrate” programs, with food and a speaker, which focus on a specific religious or cultural group or event. “We’ve celebrated Eid-al-fitr (the last day of Ramadan), Diwali, Easter, Black History Month and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Pride,” he said. “They’re always packed.”

The company has found another way to keep people informed about significant religious events. “We populate everyone’s Outlook calendar with holidays/days of note from all the major religions,” Bach said, in order to avoid conflicts in scheduling. “We consulted with a number of stakeholder groups to make sure we got the right ones—and the critical ones—because otherwise you’ll have your Outlook calendar filled to the brim with events,” he noted. “Everyone knows that if it’s on the calendar, pay attention to it.”

KPMG distributes additional information about holidays and events that the company thinks employees need to be aware of, such as refraining from scheduling lunch meetings and events after sundown during Ramadan.

“Most organizations in Canada wouldn’t touch religion with a 10-foot pole,” Bach added, but he said he feels that it is important to include religion “as part of the diversity spectrum.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Articles:

Expert: Consistency, Training Help Avoid Religious Bias Claims, SHRM Online Employee Relations Discipline, May 20, 2010

Religious Expression: The Devil Is in the Details, SHRM Online Employee Relations Discipline, April 5, 2010

Make Sure Religion at Work Stays on Right Side of Line, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, March 30, 2010

Consider Religious Beliefs When Scheduling Events, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, May 18, 2009

HR Seeks Balance in Handling Religion in the Workplace, HR News, Oct. 21, 2008

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