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Religious discrimination in the workplace increases with diversity

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.
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.

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.

But the report found religious, racial and other minorities aren't the only workers who see themselves as victims of discrimination. Some 40 percent of white evangelical Christians said they face "a lot" of discrimination. And 59 percent of evangelicals say discrimination against Christians has become as big a problem as discrimination against other religious groups. At the same time, evangelicals were the most likely to say there is little to no discrimination at work against other religious, racial, gay and lesbian and other groups.

Christian conflicts

The General Social Survey, which collects data on demographic characteristics and attitudes of residents of the United States, sheds some light on how evangelical Christians perceive discrimination.

Christianity Today examined responses to GSS questions about attitudes about employment and found 36 percent of those who identified as evangelical said they were the targets of rumors and gossip, 44 percent said they were treated rudely and 50 percent said they had been lied to at work.

The feelings of religious bias could also stem from workplace policies that violate some religious beliefs or values and have nothing to do with the legal requirements of accommodating religious practice at work.

Dagit said policies involving sexual orientation can cause conflict between those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or trangendered and workers who consider same-sex relations a sin.

"What happens is if there are policies or events focused on the gay community you get a strong reaction from people, particularly in the Christian community," she said. "They feel it is against their religious beliefs and it makes them uncomfortable if the company offers benefits to LGBT employees or allows gay pride month posters" in the workplace.

The Tanenbaum report suggests these conflicts are a symptom of the workplace reflecting the diversity of society at large. And the more diverse the company, the more likely conflict will arise.

The survey found about 1 in 4 workers (23 percent) in high diversity environments reported witnessing or experiencing conflict between religious and LGBT co-workers. By contrast, only 7 to 9 percent of workers in minimal to moderate diversity environments reported similar conflicts.

The payoff

While a manager may look at those numbers and conclude that having a diverse workforce isn't worth the potential headaches it can cause, Tanenbaum CEO Joyce Dubensky said such a strategy could come at a high cost, particularly in a global environment.

"They are cutting out some of the top talent available to them, and in the long run that has an economic cost," she said. "The best talent does not come in one shape or from one religion."

Under federal law, employers cannot discriminate on the basis of religion and they are required to make reasonable accommodations for their workers to practice their faith. Court rulings have also clarified that while employers can regulate behavior, they cannot force an employee to violate his conscience.

And accommodating the religious needs of employees can go a long ways toward retaining those workers. The Tanenbaum survey found:

• Employees at companies that provide flexible hours for religious observance are more than twice as likely to say that they look forward to coming to work.

• When companies have policies on religious discrimination, their employees are less likely to be looking for a new job.

• Workers whose companies offer education programs about religious diversity and flexibility for religious practice report higher job satisfaction than workers in companies that do not.

Dagit said she encourages an interfaith approach that involves creating employee resource groups that represent all faith traditions within the company rather than groups representing conflicting interests. The members of an inclusive interfaith group can educate each other about their traditions and help the company develop policies to accommodate multiple religious needs and settle conflicts.

But understanding diversity has benefits outside of the workplace as well as within, she said.

Dagit encourages working groups based on faith and other areas of religious identity to help the company meet the needs of its customers. For example, knowing the dietary restrictions of various faith traditions could help a hospitality business expand its market share.

"You have to think through how your diversity policies affect the workforce, workplace and marketplace," she said. "You can have a sustainable workforce and workplace (diversity) program, if you can link it to a compelling business case."


Twitter: @deseretbrown