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CHICAGO—“Religion is one of those hot potatoes,” says The Rev. Pamela Moore, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights organization founded to fight anti-Semitism. This is particularly true when religion enters the workplace.
There are several possible consequences when an employee’s beliefs and work environment don’t jibe. Employees who feel unwelcome might simply leave an organization, a cost that can be measured easily. In other cases employee behavior might rise to the level of workplace bullying or harassment, which can lead to more serious outcomes such as workplace violence, legal risk and the undesirable media attention that follows such events.
Alternatively, an organization focused on diversity and inclusion might encourage employees to “bring their whole selves to work,” according to Moore, including their faith. But she says there are many issues that can crop up when religious expression is encouraged.
That’s why Moore encouraged attendees at a Conference Board session held here April 15, 2008, to pursue conflict management training before getting their organizations involved in any type of faith-based initiative. She said such training should build communication, critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making skills for managers and others responsible for resolving workplace conflicts.
“Religious conflict is one of the most difficult types of conflicts to resolve,” Moore said.
Interpersonal conflicts arise when people have a need, value or want that is threatened. This may result from perception, misunderstanding or reality, such as when a time off policy grants leave for some religious holidays and not for others.
In addition, conflict might arise when basic human needs such as belonging, respect and fun are not met.
Individual responses in such a situation will vary, Moore said. “The level to which you are comfortable with conflict will impact how you react to it,” she said. Many people—including leaders and managers—may want to avoid it, for example, while others will want to meet it head on.
Once conflict does occur, there are several possible responses, according to Moore, such as the “I win, you lose” approach taken by someone who wants to win at all costs, or the “we both lose” situation that can arise when parties refuse to give in or negotiate.
A better outcome, of course, is a “win, win,” which requires that parties spend time trying to understand each other and seek common ground in order to craft an agreement that works for both.
When addressing a religious conflict, Moore said, employers should gather facts, learn more about employee needs and then brainstorm a wide range of possible strategies to resolve a situation before choosing a solution that meets the most needs.
“If you have an independent standard of procedures, you can apply it to every situation,” she added.
Despite the challenges, Moore noted that organizations and individuals can reap benefits when employees bring their faith to work. For example, employees may be better able to manage workday stresses and organizations may be able to reinforce corporate values that align with employees’ personal values.
Moreover, employees who are not afraid to be themselves at work are more likely to be productive and engaged, she added.
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is manager of SHRM’s Diversity Focus Area.
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