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Navigating the Complexities of Religious Inclusion

As more companies encourage their employees to bring their “whole selves” to work, religious expression is becoming more common, causing both comfort and conflict.

Shortly after Scott Robbins joined MiQ four years ago, he learned that the digital marketing company was holding an important regional meeting on Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest day. 

Robbins, a regional sales director for MiQ, says he wasn't angry or surprised, considering that at the time, there were no other Jewish people in his Dallas office, which was new and had few employees, or even on his Midwestern sales team. When Robbins explained why he couldn't attend the event, his manager promised the mistake wouldn't be repeated. 

"You can't blame people for what they don't know," Robbins says, adding that he still felt "left out and annoyed." 

Three years later, as Robbins gained more Jewish colleagues, he co-founded MiQ's Jewish employee resource group (ERG). He says the group offers an opportunity for him and his colleagues to connect and support one another while also sharing their beliefs with those who don't share their faith. Activities have included presenting an interview with a Holocaust survivor and creating programming to explain Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

Based in New York City and London, MiQ also has ERGs for Muslims and Hindus in its offices. Sara Axelbaum, the company's global head of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), says that recognizing and celebrating different religions is part of MiQ's overall mission to create a workplace where everyone feels welcome. 

"We want people to constantly discover more about each other, and the ERGs are a great way to get a window into other people's lives," Axelbaum says.

In many organizations, religion is no longer a taboo topic. The old unspoken rule to not bring up politics or religion in the workplace is faltering. Now that many employers encourage people to bring their "whole selves" to work in the name of well-being, conversations about race, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities—and, increasingly, religion—have become more common.

Religion in the Courts

Historically, religious discrimination cases have been ­relatively rare, accounting for between 3 percent and 4 percent of the charges brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). That changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, as workers sought religious exemptions from employer vaccine ­mandates. In the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2022, ­religious discrimination accounted for almost 19 percent of charges brought by the EEOC.

Two recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings regarding ­religion in the workplace have helped push the issue ­further into the spotlight. 

The first one, issued on June 29, concerned Gerald Groff, a postal worker and evangelical Christian who observes a Sunday Sabbath, meaning he doesn't work on that day. That became an issue when Groff's local post ­office started delivering packages for Amazon on ­Sundays. Groff faced progressive discipline when he failed to show up for work on Sundays, and he eventually quit and sued the U.S. Postal Service.

Groff's case ultimately reached the Supreme Court. In Groff v. DeJoy, the court ruled unanimously in favor of Groff, finding that employers can only deny an employee's request for religious accommodation if the organization can prove that granting it would result in a substantial hardship to the employer. The previous legal standard obligated employers to grant requests only if the cost to the organization was minimal.

One day after publishing its decision in the Groff case, the Supreme Court ruled similarly in 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis. The 6-3 decision was in favor of website designer Lorie Smith, a Christian who wanted the right to refuse to make wedding websites for same-sex couples due to her religious beliefs about marriage. The court ruled that the designer's free speech rights trumped the state of Colorado's legal protections against discrimination, and as a private business owner, Smith had the right to refuse to serve customers based on her convictions. 

Previously, legal experts say, religious discrimination cases were not common because they traditionally were harder to prove. Now, the Groff and 303 Creative decisions are likely to change that. 

"We're entering a whole new world of religion in the workplace," says Frank Shuster, an Atlanta-based partner at Constangy, Brooks, Smith and Prophete. "It's a whole new landscape."

Shuster and other legal experts say the current environment will embolden more employees and advocacy groups to file lawsuits against their employers, especially regarding accommodations that enable them to practice their faith in the workplace. 

Legal Ramifications

Recent rulings in favor of religious accommodations have some experts worried about what kinds of accommodations employees may request. This unease greatly increases the potential for conflict in the workplace, especially for smaller employers, says Harvey Linder, an Atlanta-based partner at Culhane Meadows. "What might not be a burden for IBM could be for Mary's flower shop," he explains. 

Lawyers are increasingly dealing with questions such as: What if an employee says their faith requires them to proselytize, and they do so in the workplace? What if an employee refuses to work with a gay colleague because their religion condemns homosexuality? What if a company is accused of favoring one religion over another after accommodating a faith-based request?

Indeed, lawsuits like the one recently filed by Courtney Rogers for religious discrimination are becoming increasingly common. Rogers says her former employer, global food service provider Compass Group, fired her after she requested a religious accommodation that would excuse her from involvement in administering a workplace diversity program that she says promised promotions to participants, but excluded white men. 

Rogers, who worked in the HR department, argued that her Christian faith prevents her from participating in such an activity, saying, "I believe that nobody should be identified by or restricted by their gender or race, because everybody is created equal under the eyes of God." 

According to court documents. Rogers' supervisor did not engage in an interactive process regarding her request for a religious accommodation, and he fired her on Nov. 2, 2022, citing a failure to perform job duties. Rogers, who maintains that her informal reviews had all been positive, filed her suit in July. Compass Group did not respond to requests for comment. 

Legal experts say that to avoid disharmony, employers should be transparent about why they may make certain accommodations at the request of specific employees. 

Axelbaum says that at MiQ, an employee will occasionally complain about accommodations that the company has made for a colleague for a religious reason. When that happens, Axelbaum explains the reason for the accommodation in the hopes of creating some empathy on the part of the disgruntled employee. She adds that MiQ gives employees two personal days off per year that can be used for any reason, including religious observances. "You are never going to satisfy everyone," Axelbaum notes. 

We want people to constantly discover more about each other, and the ERGs are a great way to get a window into other people's lives.

Sara Axelbaum

Conversations about faith can help quell dissent over accommodations, says Brian Grim, founding president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, an Annapolis, Md.-based nonprofit that educates leaders, policymakers and consumers about the positive benefits that faith can have in the workplace. 

"Respect, empathy and humility are core values espoused by most religions," Grim says. "While some religious beliefs might be offensive to others, those core values aren't. In religious DE&I initiatives, it's important to define what they are about and what they aren't. Among other things, they are about information, engagement and celebration; they are not about dogma, proselytizing or the culture wars."

Sometimes, current events can spark strong religious sentiment at work. For example, the war that broke out in Israel in October after an attack by Hamas reverberated across the world and has filtered into the workplace in multiple ways. Managers should be alert to the fallout of potential disagreements among employees that could devolve into bullying, harassment or discrimination. 

Because these types of issues may affect employees' mental health and productivity, HR leaders should also advise affected employees of company benefits that may help them cope. Employers that opt to make statements about current events, especially those with a religious backdrop, should be especially sensitive to employees of all beliefs.

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Employee Resource Groups

The focus on religion in the workplace is noteworthy when you consider the fact that organized religion is ­becoming less important to many Americans. The number of self-reported religious Americans has been on a slow decline. Less than half (47 percent) say they are religious, down from 54 percent in 1999, according to a Gallup poll released in September. About one-third of Americans say they are spiritual but not religious. However, the percentage of Americans who say they are neither religious nor spiritual has jumped to 18 percent from 9 percent over the past 24 years. 

Still, many of the faithful desire a voice at their companies. Roughly two years ago, a group of religious U.S. employees at the global software company SAP requested permission to start a faith-based ERG. Jada McFadden, a people experience manager in SAP's Global Diversity & Inclusion Office, says the employees felt they couldn't talk about religion at work, and they wanted to end that taboo. 

McFadden says SAP gave permission for the group to form, and it has made a major impact during its relatively short tenure. Among its accomplishments, McFadden says, are helping create a guidebook for managers that explains different religions and includes a calendar of holidays. The book is especially focused on non-Christian religions that many employees may not be familiar with. "Instead of employees constantly having to explain themselves, we have a book," McFadden says.

There were other successes, too. When SAP began renovating a building in Germany, members of the ERG asked if it could include a prayer room and an adjacent space with running water for Muslims to perform ritual purification, which includes washing their feet. The plan had already included a prayer room, but it was revised to include a purification space as well.

The interfaith ERG at San Francisco-based software company Salesforce has also created materials and training for managers to help them better understand various religious traditions, and it has established spaces for prayer in the workplace. Created in 2017, the ERG, named Faithforce, has also informed some of the company's products.

Michael Roberts, a solutions engineer and president of Faithforce, says he has helped tailor products sold to faith-based organizations, such as improving the donation form interface. Recently, the group started working with the Salesforce team tasked with ensuring the company is using AI ethically.

A devout Christian, Roberts says he wasn't always comfortable talking about his faith. He says a gay friend once remarked that it was easier for the friend to be out about his sexuality at work than it was for Roberts to be openly religious. That remark motivated Roberts to create Faithforce. He says that feeling free to speak about religion affects how people carry themselves at work. 

Restricting employees' conversations about religion "stifles their creativity in the workplace and stifles transparent relationships," Roberts says. "Bringing your full self to work helps you do your best work." 

Tips for Creating a More Religiously Inclusive Workplace


  • Consult a multi-faith religious calendar to ensure that your organization is not scheduling any vital ­meetings or must-attend events on important religious holidays.
  • Serve a wide variety of foods and beverages at ­company events to accommodate those with ­religious dietary restrictions. 
  • Consider creating a quiet space for prayer, reflection and meditation.
  • Widely publish the procedures for requesting a religious accommodation so employees know the process and managers understand how to handle such requests. 
  • Consider creating employee resource groups to enable employees to increase their colleagues’ ­understanding of their faith and the reasons why they may seek accommodations.
  • Update company policies on granting religious accommodations to reflect recent Supreme Court rulings requiring employers to grant such requests unless doing so would result in substantial hardship for the organization. 
  • Consider granting personal days to allow employees to take time off for religious holidays without using their vacation time. —T.A.

Chaplains at Work

ERGs aren't the only avenue employers can take as they strive to create faith-friendly environments. Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods has employed industrial chaplains since 2000. Each of the 100 chaplains are assigned to a facility where their role is to foster bonds with employees and help them with their personal and professional needs. That can mean lending an ear or referring them to other services. Conversations are kept confidential. 

At the end of each month, without using any identifying details, the chaplain discusses employee concerns with the facility's management and HR representatives. Tyson views the information as a tool to help create a better work environment for employees. 

The chaplains "allow people to really show up and say who they really are and say what they really think and say what they really feel in a psychologically safe environment," says Kevin Scherer, director of chaplain services in Tyson's HR department. 

We're entering a whole new world of religion in the workplace. It's a whole new landscape. 

Frank Shuster

Chaplains do not discuss religion with employees unless employees bring it up, although chaplains are sometimes involved in addressing faith-related issues. For example, Carrie Kreps Wegenast, a chaplain supervisor at a Tyson facility in New London, Wis., says she arranges for Muslim employees to take breaks in conference rooms while fasting during the month of Ramadan so they aren't near colleagues who are eating. Kreps ­Wegenast says that since she knows the faith of most of the 700 employees at the facility, she often asks about workers' holiday plans, creating another touch point for her to interact with ­employees. 

Chaplains can also help when confusion arises over employees' religious practices. When Kreps ­Wegenast worked at a plant in Green Bay, Wis., several years ago, a group of Muslim Somali refugees was hired at the facility. The new employees didn't communicate to managers that they needed to pray periodically, leaving colleagues and managers baffled when they abruptly left the production line, often letting food go to waste. Kreps ­Wegenast reached out to a local imam for help developing accommodations that would allow Muslim workers to pray in a designated place without interfering with food ­production. 

The experience led Kreps Wegenast to talk to ­employees about their faith and share what she learned with all employees to promote better understanding of one another. Before her efforts, Kreps Wegenast says, employees interacted only with members of their own ethnic or religious group during breaks. Eventually, however, she saw them sitting together and laughing with one another. 

"I felt like there was a sense of community," she notes.

Theresa Agovino is the workplace editor for SHRM.