Faith no longer taboo

by 23 Jan 2007

ALTHOUGH IN its early stages, the “faith-at-work movement” is beginning to demand serious attention from employers – and in some cases pose major workplace challenges – according to a recent US report.

Like the social issues that helped define earlier generations, the topic of faith at work has crept into businesses. Proposals to form affinity groups, prayer breakfasts, and the introduction of corporate chaplains are among the 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.

The Conference Board report concluded that how companies frame their response to such issues will determine if they become a legal minefield or a source of competitive advantage.

The faith-at-work movement is still in its early stages and companies are uncertain how to respond, according to David Miller, executive director of the YaleCenter for Faith and Culture. He observed 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 said is a mistake.

Miller makes a distinction between being “faith-based” and “faith-friendly.”The former he finds inappropriate for most large organisations, particularly if they are publicly-traded companies, since faith-based implies privileging one tradition over another.

However, he concluded that a “faith-friendly” company is welcoming of all traditions where all are treated on an even playing field. 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.

Certain geo-political and demographic factors will eventually force the issue for companies, The Conference Board report warned. Immigration is creating a more religiously (and ethnically) diverse workforce that will only grow in importance and number in coming years.

Globalisation means firms are coming into contact with cultures in which religion is deeply ingrained in the day-to-day workplace and the US emphasis on separation of church and state is antithetical. On the other hand, Islam, for example, teaches very specific notions and laws that guide business terms and behaviours.

A thoughtful and progressive policy can serve as a recruitment and retention tool, according to The Conference Board.

Faith in the workplace

When dealing with the issue of faith in the workplace, the most important policy is to be consistent, according to the Conference Board report. When drafting policy guidelines, David Miller, executive director of the YaleCenter for Faith and Culture, advised taking the following issues into consideration:

Is the policy exclusive or inclusive?

Will it cause or prevent lawsuits?

Will it promote intra-group 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?

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