Diversifying the Religious Experience 

As workplace complaints increase, companies struggle for an inclusive environment

By Danielle Lee 


The number of workplace religious-diversity-discrimination complaints has increased 50 percent to 2,541 annually in the last nine years, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Always a hot human resources issue, workforce diversity—and particularly race and gender discrimination—have made for big headlines and large lawsuit settlements, but protection against religious discrimination is a younger element of the diversity puzzle that many corporations are just beginning to understand and accommodate.  

“Many companies still use the old model: at work, don’t talk about sex, politics or religion,” says David Miller, the Executive Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and leader of the center’s “Ethics and Spirituality in the Workplace” program. “But most companies do talk about sex, [with] explicit policies and educational programs on sexual orientation and sexual harassment, and support different political parties with lobbying; this is just the next frontier.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals based on their religion in their hiring, firing and other terms and conditions of employment.

Following 9/11, the EEOC reported an increase in religion and national origin-based discrimination complaints, many from people perceived to be Muslim, Arab, South Asian, or Sikh.

Both religiously mandated clothing and time off for religious prayer and holidays should be covered by religious accommodation, according to the EEOC.

IBM has been lauded widely for its religious diversity efforts. The company provides Muslim women employees with two identification cards: one in which she is pictured with her hijab—or headscarf—and one without, to be shown to female security officers. IBM also has a washroom for Muslim employees to clean their feet and nasal passages before their daily prayers.

Tyson Foods also has embraced a “faith-friendly” environment as part of its core values, which Miller helped the company develop.

This movement is growing in the corporate world, says Miller. Factors contributing to the rise include the blurring of professional and personal lives of employees, the growing immigrant community entering the workforce with certain expectations, and “employees want[ing] to live an integrated life and not a bifurcated life, where they separate parts of who they are,” he says.

The implantation of religious-diversity  policies in the workplace is also becoming less fractionalized, with more company initiatives concentrating on the inclusion of all religions, instead of a select few.
Douglas Hicks, Associate Professor of Leadership Studies and Religion at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School, argues for this kind of pluralism in his 2003 study, “Religion and the Workplace: Pluralism, Spirituality, Leadership”:

“Both civil religion and workplace spirituality de-emphasize the possible conflicts and difficulties often faced by employees who are also religious practitioners. Jews, Christians, or Muslims who are employees of a company may well have reason to question the practices of their company on religio-moral grounds. Institutionally sponsored workplace spirituality does not recognize such potential conflicts... institutionally expressing workplace spirituality is clearly not synonymous with allowing individual employees to express their beliefs and practices at work.”

The issue of inclusion is especially prevalent during the holiday season, when multi-ethnic sensitivity is a controversial topic, and a simple seasonal greeting may seem to some like a dirty word.

“You can’t have a Christmas party at work,” says Simma Lieberman, a diversity consultant and President of Simma Lieberman Associates, who has done workshops and spoken at conferences on the issue. “You can do a holiday party, a season party, and I really believe in New Year’s parties. Helping people get together and network; that’s how people move up. When organizations have Christmas parties, people may come, but oftentimes they’re not very comfortable, or they come and still feel like they’re the other.”

Lieberman recommends dialogue in the workplace that includes discussion topics such as: What was it like growing up in your neighborhood in terms of diversity and religion? What messages did you get about people that were different than you? What was your first experience with someone different? What is your life like now?

Terry Howard, Diversity Director at Texas Instruments, has led the way in the religious diversity field by supporting business resource groups—known in other companies as affinity groups—that allow people of specific race, gender or sexual orientation to meet and address issues that concern them.
The group initiatives, for which there are more than 25 that include Japanese, Christian values, women’s, disabled and lesbian and gay, are developed and managed by the employees and open to everyone. The initiatives also sponsor forums throughout the year on various topics. Howard has made a case for moving these alliances beyond the social and into a more direct alignment with business.

“Diversity is evolving,” Howard told HR magazine. “Most of us have been down the path of those early workshops and seminars dealing with bias, but we're going much deeper now.”