When Muslim employees at Ford Motor Co. needed a place to perform ablution, a ceremonial washing before prayer, they knew who would help. The Ford Interfaith Network, a company-funded religious employee group, played the role of ombudsman and had certain restroom sinks designated for ablution at the Product Development Center in Dearborn, Michigan.
The 3-year-old employee resource group also sends a monthly electronic newsletter to 6,700 Ford employees, observes the National Day of Prayer with readings from eight religions, and hosts lunchtime presentations. "We're particularly trying to make sure people feel that they don't have to leave their faith or personal beliefs at the door when they show up for work in the morning," says Daniel Dunnigan, a finance manager at Ford and chairman of the Interfaith Network. "The company acknowledges that is part of who they are."
Ford isn't the only company to grapple with the contentious issue of religion in the workplace. American Airlines, Texas Instruments and Intel Corp. all support religious employee networks, adding those groups to the roster of more traditional constituency networks based on race, ethnicity, gender or other shared characteristics. Though companies could completely divorce themselves from anything to do with religion, many say that the faith-based employee resource groups complement their workforce-diversity goals and contribute to the bottom line through employee recruitment, development and retention. In addition, at least one company believes that its willingness to confront thorny issues impresses its customers, enhancing the company's position in the marketplace.
Much of the increased interest in religion in the workplace reflects a convergence of social trends. A 2004 Gallup survey shows that 90 percent of American adults believe in God and 59 percent say religion is "very important" in their lives. And as employees spend more time at the office, they feel more entitled to personal expression. At the same time, recent high-profile corporate scandals are making the rest of corporate America more receptive to efforts perceived as fostering an ethical workplace.
"The old conventional wisdom was just don't talk about religion or spirituality in the workplace at all," says the Rev. Thomas Sullivan, director of spiritual life and professor of business ethics at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. "The new conventional wisdom is that we still don't want proselytizing pressure in the workplace and we don't want people to feel unwelcome, but we know that folks who feel like they can bring their spiritual values to work are happier, are more productive, stay longer and help the company more than people who don't feel like they can bring their values to work. The challenge is finding a way to do that, that still respects the old conventional wisdom of seeing to it that people don't feel pressured or proselytized in any way."
At Ford, several separate religious groups petitioned the company, each seeking designation as an employee resource group. The official status gives groups a senior-management "champion," corporate funding and an intranet site. The company denied the requests, saying that it did not want to appear as if it were favoring one religious group. But Ford said it would consider a proposal for an interfaith employee resource group, one with representatives from a variety of religions.
Work began in 2000 on bylaws that would provide a seat on the interfaith network's board for any religion with 350 million adherents worldwide or 1 percent of the U.S. population. By 2001 the Ford Interfaith Network had assembled a board composed of representatives from eight religions-Buddhism, Catholicism, Evangelical Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Mormonism and Orthodox Christianity. There's also a non-voting chairman who facilitates meetings. "Requiring it to be an interfaith employee resource group drove acceptance and diversity," says Ford's Dunnigan, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "People really have learned to work together."
The idea of addressing religion in the secular business world often causes even seasoned human resources executives to pause and see how it complements their people-management strategies. At Texas Instruments, worldwide diversity director Terry Howard remembers his reaction when approached by 10 Christian employees about forming a company-sanctioned religious group. "The questions that I raised were: What does this mean to TI? How would recognizing you as a group help TI meet its business objectives and targets? How is it going to make TI serve customers better? How is it going to make TI a good place to work for everyone and be inclusive?" he says. "They made it quite clear that they saw themselves as being in the position to help us recruit and retain people of faith-based backgrounds."
Requests to form religious groups should be reviewed by "well-intentioned people with diverse religious backgrounds," says Laura Nash, a Harvard Business School expert on religion in the workplace and co-author of Church on Sunday, Work on Monday. "Often the request will come from people trying to sell a certain kind of membership in a religion," Nash says. "Let's face it: Nobody is stopping you from a moment of silent prayer at your desk. When managers get confronted by a request to pay more attention to or make a more deliberate effort to allow religion in the workplace, the first thing they should do is to make sure the people in charge of processing that request are a diverse group themselves."
At American Airlines, employees wishing to form a new employee group submit an application to the company's Diversity Advisory Council, composed of representatives from the 14 existing resource groups, a wide spectrum that includes constituents from working parents to employees with disabilities. The council approved American's Christian Employee Resource Group in 1995, followed in 1997 by Jewish and Muslim groups. "Our employees have not had any difficulty accepting the religious-based employee resource groups," says Sharyn Holley, managing director of diversity strategies and corporate citizenship at American Airlines. American's Diversity Advisory Council is responsible for keeping the yearly objectives of employee groups aligned with corporate goals. To support American's objective of community involvement, for example, the Christian Employee Resource Group coordinated a program that collected and shipped 729 contemporary Christian music CDs to U.S. troops in Iraq.
Companies must be cautious because such religion-related community-service projects could cause employees outside the group to feel ostracized, says Michelle Bligh, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Claremont Graduate University.
Sometimes the activities of the groups dovetail with the business of the company. Intel's Bible-Based Christian Group received company funding to attend the 2004 Christian Games Developers Conference, where Christians who develop computer games discuss the industry and pray for God to bless it.
Two lawsuits that were ruled on this year illustrate why some employers might be reluctant to encourage religious speech in the workplace. In the first, a former Hewlett-Packard employee sued the company after he was fired for insubordination because he repeatedly posted Biblical verses condemning homosexuality on his cubicle's overhead bin. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the former employee was not a victim of religious discrimination and was fired legally for violating the company's anti-harassment policy. In the second case, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Cox Communications had the right to fire an evangelical Christian for violating its anti-harassment policy after she criticized a lesbian subordinate's sexual orientation during the employee's performance review.
No "bright line" divides free speech from religious harassment in the workplace, says Dianna Johnston, assistant legal counsel with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "There are some kinds of expression that virtually everybody is going to assume are unwelcome," Johnston says. "You allow people to engage in religious expression to the extent consistent with getting the job done and respecting their colleagues."
Some companies don't sanction any employee religious groups. For example, Procter & Gamble allows employees to use small conference rooms for praying, but spokeswoman Vicky Mayer says that "no organized religious activities" are allowed on P&G property.
Whatever the policy, employers should treat religions and religious groups evenhandedly, says Michael Karpeles, a partner and head of the labor and employment group at Goldberg Kohn in Chicago. "Employers also should be clear that any religious activities associated with work are entirely voluntary and are on the employee's own time and should not be on work time."
Workforce Management, October 2004, pp. 76-77 -- Subscribe Now!
Todd Henneman is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to comment.