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On Religion: No Way to Avoid Religious Conflicts in the Modern Workplace?

Americans wrestling with religious conflicts in the workplace need to start by doing some math.

Right now, about 157 million Americans work fulltime. Meanwhile, a 2013 study by the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding found that 36 percent of workers surveyed said they had experienced religious discrimination at work or witnessed this discrimination happening to someone else.

This sobering trend “affects all groups, including evangelical Christians reporting high levels of discrimination. Muslims, Jewish people and people with no affiliation also experience discrimination on the basis of religion or belief,” said Brian Grim of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation in Annapolis, Md. He led a panel on faith-friendly workplaces during a recent religious liberty conference at Yeshiva University in New York City. It was cosponsored by the International Center for Law and Religious Studies at Brigham Young University.

“If you turn that into numbers,” said Grim, this means “36 percent of the American workforce is 50 million people. That’s a big, big issue.”

These conflicts cannot be ignored. For starters, religious institutions and “faith-friendly businesses” contribute $1.2 trillion annually to the U.S. economy, said Grim. And while headlines focus on rising numbers of “Nones” — the religiously unaffiliated — in America, birth rates and religious-conversion trends indicate that the “religiously affiliated population of the world is going to outgrow the religiously unaffiliated by a factor of 23 to 1. … We’re going to have a much more religious workplace and much more religious marketplaces.”

Meanwhile, some economic powers — China, India, Russia, Turkey and France, for example — have increased restrictions on people’s “freedom to practice their faith, change their faith or have no faith at all,” he said. This often causes violence that is “bad for business. It’s good for businesses that produce bullets and bombs, unfortunately.”

Corporate leaders in have addressed some diversity issues, such as discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation, but “religion is the next big issue that they need to be looking at,” said Grim. Last year, he noted, complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about religious discrimination outnumbered LGBTQ cases nearly 2-1.

Grim asked this big question: “What is the right way to … come out of the closet about your faith at work?”

Some corporations have hired interfaith chaplains to serve as a bridge. Others have created faith-based networks within their companies, similar to interest groups providing support for women, people of color and LGBTQ workers.

This is effective when dealing with practical issues, such as religious holiday schedules or issues linked to dietary standards or religious fasts, said Dan Eckstein, director of communications, media and technology for Accenture. He is part of the Interfaith Employee Resource group in New York.

But many religious issues are both complex and sensitive. Managers may not understand that, while it’s good to have a common prayer room, Muslim employees will need facilities to wash their hands and feet. Some workers may need the flexibility to work from home during intense holiday seasons. One interfaith group, he noted, recently sponsored a discussion group for employees on “Dating, dining and devotion.”

The key is to promote civility and an understanding that religious diversity is now a normal part of life, added Eckstein.

“It’s not about proselytizing,” he said. “It’s not about changing someone’s beliefs, but it’s about creating that inclusive behavior where people are able to talk about these topics. … We don’t want to impose on others what we would not want imposed on us.”

Corporate managers also need to understand that, if they ask people to surrender or hide their religious convictions when they enter the workplace, they are preventing them from doing their work to the best of their abilities, said David Bucker, who leads Bottom Line Training and Consulting, Inc., and teaches at Columbia University. He is a regional leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“In business, if we can tap people’s purpose — if they understand the ‘Why?’, not just the “How?’ and the ‘What?’ –we mobilize them,” he said. “Many people are driven by their core … which is their faith.

“By telling them to set that aside, and put that outside the door before they walk in … we completely remove some of the power that moves them.”

Terry Mattingly (tmatt.net) leads GetReligion.org and is Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

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