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Religious discrimination in the workplace increases with diversity

Published: Monday, Sept. 2 2013 7:00 a.m. MDT

Research has found that as religious diversity increases in the workplace, so do instances of religious discrimination. But there are ways to combat discrimination and reap the benefits of diversity.

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When executives at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding examined the results of their latest annual survey of American Workers and Religion, they expected to find bias against members of religious minorities.

What caught the consultant group by surprise was that nearly 6-in-10 white evangelical Protestant workers said discrimination against Christians, the majority faith in America, is as big a problem as discrimination against workers of minority faiths.

"People of all faiths, including those who belong to the 'majority,' have religious needs that require a response in the workplace," said the nonprofit group's 2013 report, released just before Labor Day weekend. "That means that (addressing those needs) can be just as important to the man who is a white evangelical Protestant as it is to the woman who is Muslim or to others who follow a minority belief tradition in the U.S."

The report suggested that as the workforce becomes more diverse along with society in general, managers can expect a corresponding rise in religious-related conflicts, ranging from harassment to a lack of accommodations for prayer and other practices employees are legally entitled to engage in at work.

But diversity consultants agree there is an upside to this trend. Employers who adapt to religious diversity and reduce conflict not only improve morale but improve performance by attracting the best talent from a broad range of backgrounds that can help the company appeal to a larger customer base.

"If you have more diversity and a pluralistic workforce, you have more opportunities to experience and learn different things," said Deb Dagit, a diversity consultant for industry, government and nonprofits. "As a result, the new experience process can have conflict, but you also get innovation and customer insight. If you can work through it, you get a net benefit."

Perception and reality

The survey of more than 2,000 adults conducted for the Tanenbaum Center by Public Religion Research found that religious discrimination at work is widespread and takes on different forms. One-third reported either seeing or experiencing religious bias, and 36 percent reported some form of non-accommodation, such as policies prohibiting religious clothing or beards, requiring employees to work on sabbaths or religious holidays or not providing an area for employees to pray and meditate.

Almost half the non-Christian respondents (49 percent) reported experiencing or seeing non-accommodation at their workplace. And a majority (54 percent) of all the workers surveyed said Muslims face more discrimination in society than all other groups, including gays and lesbians, racial minorities and women.

"Workplace discrimination is one of the largest categories (of bias) we see year to year," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that since 2001 more than 20 percent of the complaints it investigates annually involve bias against Muslims, who make up less than 2 percent of the population.

Hooper said 20 years ago the discrimination against Muslims primarily involved dress codes or policies on religious holidays. Today, the conflicts are more personal, such as name calling or offending jokes.

"We don't see as much of the systemic discrimination," Hooper said. "Now it's typically personal prejudices" between employees and an employee and a supervisor.

Perceptions of religious discrimination within certain groups vary, the Tanenbaum report said, with 66 percent of Muslims saying Muslims face discrimination and 55 percent of atheists saying atheists face bias.

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