National Edition

Faith and work: Accommodating religion boosts morale and bottom line

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

Fifty-six percent of those who said religion was very or extremely important to them said their faith was a factor in their career choice. Of those who said religion was somewhat important, half as many — 27 percent — said faith factored into their decision on an occupation.

"People who place a high premium on religion are going to factor religion into their decision-making and choice of jobs," said Emily Sigalow, an author of the study published in the June 2012 issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. "Faith informs and motivates decisions in complicated ways."

The whole person

An example of that complicated connection is the experience of Scott Thompson, a 48-year-old public relations professional who recently took a new job handling media relations and marketing for a hospital network in Tacoma, Wash.

Thompson had been searching for new employment for about a year. After his interview with Franciscan Health System, a series of events — from the job offer to selling his old house in Utah to moving his expectant wife and 3-year-old son into another home in Washington — took place so quickly and smoothly that he is now certain prayers were answered and divine intervention was at play.

"I do pray and have a strong belief in God and seek his counsel," said Thompson, who was raised a Baptist but does not currently attend a church. "It didn't click at the time, but when I look back at all that had to happen to be here, I think there had to be some divine plan. This is where I am meant to be."

His current employer is affiliated with Catholic Health Initiatives. Thompson said the culture of his new job is a stark difference from his previous employer, where he never felt like he was progressing.

"Faith probably did play a part in realizing it was a better fit," Thompson said reflecting on the change. "Here, they treat you as a whole person and not just as an employee."

But religious affiliates aren't the only organizations that consider all aspects of an employee's life, including the spiritual. Andy Newland, president of Denver-based Hercules Industries, said the regional heating, ventilation and air conditioning supplier understands that work is not the top priority of its employees.

"Their family and their faith are the No. 1 priority in their lives. So you acknowledge that and allow your employees the freedom to participate in whatever activities their faith might require," Newland said. "That does go a long way toward team building and productivity. It is just common sense. But in today’s biz environment, that gets lost in the demands for 80-hour work weeks."

He explained that Hercules has a responsibility to respect its employees' commitments to their family and faith while providing a constructive atmosphere at work that encourages working together.

"It makes them more efficient workers and better people outside of work," he said. "We know that faith is important to us as business owners. So, if it's important to us, it’s important to our employees."

Free exercise rights

Hercules is one of nearly 30 companies that have sued the government over the Affordable Care Act's mandate to provide their employees contraceptive coverage. The companies argue that covering birth control directly or indirectly violates their constitutional right to practice their religion.

The increased emphasis of private enterprise on the religious needs of employees is putting a finer point on a key issue in the lawsuits: Does a commercial enterprise have rights of religious conscience?

In legal pleadings, the government has argued that the business owners have the right to practice their faith but those rights don't extend to the corporate entity.

"By definition, a secular employer does not engage in any 'exercise of religion,'" Department of Justice attorneys said in a motion to dismiss Hercules' complaint. "Having chosen the secular, for-profit path, the company may not impose its owners’ religious beliefs on its employees."

But devout business owners argue how they conduct their business is a reflection of their religious beliefs, which is why they find providing birth control through their health plan a violation of their right to live out their faith.

"Faith plays a role in the lives of believers no matter what they are doing," said attorney Matt Bowman of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing Hercules. "It's not possible to declare areas of life, like business or education or health care, as areas where religion is banished by the government."

The federal circuit courts are split on the question, which means the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually have to determine whether religious freedom extends to the operations of a secular corporation.

Meantime, Dubensky predicts companies will continue take a proactive approach to addressing the religious needs of their employees.

"We are getting more and more calls and companies are looking for information on a range of things," she said. "In the next 15 years you will see an explosion of accommodations."

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com

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