Faith at Work Is No Longer Taboo

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

A new report from the Conference Board examines the burgeoning “faith-at-work movement” and its implications for American businesses. How companies frame their response will determine if the issue becomes a legal minefield or a source of competitive advantage.

Like the social issues that helped define earlier generations, the topic of faith at work has crept into U.S. businesses. Proposals to form affinity groups, prayer breakfasts, and the introduction of corporate chaplains are among the common requests. Other more subtle signs include e-mail sign-offs that quote Scripture, employee intranet postings inviting colleagues to a religious service, and requests for specific foods in the company cafeteria.

The “soul” train, says Dr. David W. Miller, Executive Director, Yale Center for Faith and Culture, has left the station. He says the faith-at-work movement is still in its early stages and companies are uncertain how to respond. He observes that this is not unlike when the civil, women’s, and gay and lesbian rights movements were just emerging. Many employers are uncertain how to deal with such emotional and potentially divisive topics. In many cases, companies try to avoid the issue entirely, an action that Miller says is a mistake.

What Is a Faith-Friendly Company?
Dr. Miller makes a distinction between being “faith-based” and “faith-friendly.” The former he finds inappropriate for most large organizations, particularly if they are publicly traded companies, since faith based implies privileging one tradition over another. However, he concludes that a “faith-friendly” company welcomes all traditions; all are treated on an even playing field. The goal of a faith-friendly company is to recognize the centrality of faith for many employees and their desire to live an integrated holistic life. Faith-friendly companies do this in ways that are respectful of all faiths by creating a culture of respect, diversity, inclusion and tolerance.

Certain geopolitical and demographic factors will eventually force the issue for U.S. companies, the report warns. Immigration is creating a more religiously (and ethnically) diverse work force that will only grow in importance and number in coming years. Globalization means U.S. firms are coming in contact with cultures in which religion is deeply ingrained in the day-to-day workplace and the American emphasis on separation of church and state is antithetical. Take Islam, for example, which teaches very specific notions and laws that guide business terms and behaviors.

What Companies Can Do
A thoughtful and progressive policy can serve as a recruitment and retention tool. A small number of large corporations already formally recognize faith-based groups, seeing distinct similarities between these groups and those founded in the 1980s around race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. These “diversity groups”— the early versions of today’s affinity groups—were a way for corporations to recruit and retain minorities and market to their communities.

“For individuals, the office has become their community, their hub of life, and they want their faith to be a part of it,” notes the report. “Not demanding that one’s spiritual side be checked at the office door can provide employees with access to a tool to help deal with their emotional and spiritual needs. Strong moral and worker contentment often translates into higher productivity and more customer-friendly attitudes.” The opposite is also true. Job performance can suffer if a worker’s emotional well-being is neglected. Caring for both the physical and spiritual health of the workforce is becoming a part of good business practice.

Making Policy Work
Less than one-third of 550 human resources professionals surveyed in 2001 by the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding and the Society for Human Resource Management said they had a written policy on religion in the workplace. Yet the same number said there were more religions represented in their work force than five years earlier. And while 77% said their company includes religion in their standard harassment policy, only 16% said they offered training on religious accommodation.

When dealing with the issue of faith in the workplace, the most important policy is to be consistent, according to the report. When drafting policy guidelines, Dr. Miller advises taking the following issues into consideration:

  • Is the policy exclusionary or inclusionary?
  • Will it cause or prevent lawsuits?
  • Will it promote intragroup fighting or understanding?
  • Is it likely to scare off or attract and retain top talent?
  • Does it disempower or empower minority traditions?
  • Will emotional or rational dialogue be the outcome?
  • Is the language neutral? Language can shut down or open up dialogue.

Although discussion about religion is still rare in many parts of the U.S. in a work context, it plays an important role in most people's lives. How a company discusses the topic and the language it uses determine how employees will view and ultimately respond to a company’s actions and policies.

Source: Faith at Work: What Does It Mean to Be a Faith-Friendly Company?
Executive Action No. 217, The Conference Board. For a copy, contact Carol Courter at [email protected] or (212) 339-0232.