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Faith and work: Accommodating religion boosts morale and bottom line

Published: Friday, May 3 2013 10:00 a.m. MDT

Accommodating the religious needs of a workforce can boost morale and the bottom line.

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After a lengthy recruiting effort, executives of a global financial firm couldn't understand why a prized potential hire went to the competition. Was it the pay? The perks? The people? The location?

"She said that she found out the company had a reputation that is was not hijab-friendly," Joyce Dubensky, CEO of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, recalled from her discussion with the executives. "She wore (the head covering for Muslim women) and she didn’t want to go to a workplace where she wouldn’t feel welcome."

Dubensky likes to tell that story to underscore a point her organization stresses when training companies and organizations on embracing diversity: Accommodating the religious needs of a workforce can boost morale and the bottom line.

Dubensky said business is finally responding. She cited research by DiversityInc that found 78 percent of the organization's Top 50 diversified companies now offer floating religious holidays to employees compared with 42 percent nine years ago, and 70 percent provide prayer rooms today compared with 32 percent eight years ago. Awareness by employers and employees alike may continue to increase as America's religious landscape becomes more diverse and issues of religious freedom arise as a result.

"I’ve always called religion the stepchild of the diversity and inclusion movement," she said. "It has been mostly ignored in the workplace (compared to race, ethnicity and gender.) But, increasingly people are talking about it and now they are starting to do something about it."

Faith-work connection

Why it has taken so long for faith to be recognized as something employees can bring to the workplace is a mystery.

Religion and disability hold the distinction of being the only areas employers must accommodate under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, meaning they must ensure that the disabled can perform their assignments and workers can observe their faith. And based on surveys by the Pew Research Center and Gallup showing 77 percent to 79 percent of Americans identify with a faith tradition, there are a lot of religious people in the workplace.

Yet religion has remained the proverbial elephant in the room at the office — a topic human resources people feared was too sensitive and personal to address from a policy standpoint and yet loaded with liability if someone was offended by an insensitive remark or unintended impact of a company practice.

"Faith has existed in the workplace for years, but what's new is that only now are people doing something about it," Dubensky said.

Employers have learned the hard way that ignoring the faith needs of their workers exposes them to labor enforcement penalties. Statistics from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission show that from 1997 to 2012, religious discrimination complaints soared 123 percent, with a high of 4,151 complaints lodged in 2011.

The EEOC statistics also indicate employees have been slow to understand their rights to live out their beliefs at work, as long as it doesn't become an unreasonable burden on their employer.

Dubenksy said 9/11 was a turning point that put a bright light on religious discrimination against Muslims in the workplace. As a result of the complaints, awareness by employees and employers of religious rights in the workplace took hold and has grown ever since.

Though respect for religion at work has increased, the connection for individuals between their faiths and their jobs has always been strong. A recent study by social scientists at Brandeis University showed faith is a powerful influence on the choices religious people make about their occupations, as well as to where they live, who they marry and how many children they have.

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