Faith-at-work movement poses challenge for U.S employers

Dec 14 2006 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Immigration and increased diversity are forcing American workplaces to become more "faith friendly" and tolerant of religious beliefs and practices being brought into the workplace, a new study has suggested.

The Conference Board report has found that the "faith-at-work movement" is beginning to demand serious attention from employers. But in some cases, it can also pose major workplace challenges.

How companies frame their response will determine whether the issue becomes a legal minefield or a source of competitive advantage, it argued.

The topic of faith at work has rather crept up unnoticed on U.S. businesses, the report argues.

Proposals to form affinity groups, prayer breakfasts and the introduction of corporate chaplains are among some of the more common requests.

Other more subtle signs include email signoffs that quote scripture, employee intranet postings inviting colleagues to a religious service and requests for specific foods in the company cafeteria.

Yet, according to Dr David W. Miller, executive director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture the faith-at-work movement is still in its early stages and companies are as yet uncertain how to respond.

Not unlike when the civil, women's, and gay and lesbian rights movements were just emerging, many employers remain uncertain how best to deal with what can be an emotional and potentially divisive topic.

In many cases, companies try to duck the issue entirely, an action that Miller argued can be a serious mistake.

Companies also need to make a distinction between being "faith-based" and "faith-friendly".

The former will often be inappropriate for most large organisations, particularly publicly quoted ones, since it implied privileging one tradition over another, he argued.

But "faith-friendly", where a company is welcoming of all traditions and all tradtions are treated on an even playing field, is a more appropriate, and can bring distinct advantages.

The goal of a faith-friendly company is to recognise the centrality of faith in 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, said Miller.

Geo-political and demographic factors would eventually force the issue for U.S. companies, he warned.

Immigration was creating a more religiously (and ethnically) diverse workforce that would only grow in importance and number in coming years.

Globalisation, too, meant U.S. firms were ever more coming into 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.

Therefore a more thoughtful and progressive faith policy could serve as a recruitment and retention tool.

"For individuals, the office has become their community, their hub of life, and they want their faith to be a part of it," said Miller in his 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."

Conversely, job performance could suffer if a worker's emotional well-being was neglected.

Caring for both the physical and spiritual health of the workforce was becoming a part of good business practice, argued Miller.