Bahai News - Religious diversity gets attention in the workplace
Religious diversity gets attention in the workplace
Balancing business needs with accommodations for religious diversity
requires the same kind of commitment that any diversity issue does
By Laurel McKee Ranger Contributing Editor
Diversity is broadening its scope, with religious diversity joining ethnic
and racial diversity in the workplace. In fact, they're closely tied to
As U.S. demographics change and the doors of corporate America open to
talented workers of every race and nation, less-familiar religions like
Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam are sharing the spotlight with Catholicism,
Protestantism and Judaism. And as working hours get longer and more
stressful, more people want their faith right there with them in the office,
not parked at home waiting for once-a-week observance.
Enriching or divisive?
We all know that tolerance, acceptance and appreciation of diversity do
not occur without hard work. In this, religious diversity is no different
from any other form of diversity. Once it's accepted, it may even help the
business mission. But it can also be a source of misunderstanding and
The more fundamental the faith, the more misunderstandings may arise. When
introduced to a woman, even in a business setting, a strictly observant
Islamic man or Hassidic Jew may well avert his gaze and avoid shaking
He is, of course, simply following to the letter the religious restriction
on physical contact between the sexes. But even when she understands the
intent, the woman can hardly help feeling offended. Likewise, proselytizing,
which is considered a religious duty by a number of faiths, will obviously
be unwelcome to many people.
Part of who you are
It would be simplistic to expect all people to keep their religion a
private matter. Many do. But a lot of folks consider religion an integral
part of who they are.
Several of the people of various faiths interviewed for this article said
that leaving their religion at the door when they come to work – the
most common approach to issues of religious diversity– would be difficult
or impossible for them.
Balancing business needs and the needs and aspirations of different
religious groups requires the same kind of commitment to education,
compromise and tolerance that any diversity issue does – and then some.
The legal issues
To learn something about the legal issues around religious diversity in the
workplace, Diversity/Careers went to Michael Karpeles, a partner and head of
the labor and employment group at the law firm of Goldberg Kohn (Chicago,
IL). Karpeles outlined the three main issues companies face regarding
religion: discrimination, harassment and accommodation.
The discrimination issue is clear-cut: firing people, or not promoting them,
on the basis of their religious beliefs is obviously illegal.
Harassment is a more subtle issue, just as it is in the sexual or racial
arenas. It includes criticizing and belittling an individual for religious
beliefs. It can also include exposure to “severe and pervasive”
proselytizing. However, stopping all religious discourse can also constitute
harassment. “The courts are very sensitive to freedom of speech and
religious discourse issues,” Karpeles observes.
Accommodation issues arise when employees’ religious beliefs are in
conflict with the employer’s needs or policies. Current law requires
employers to accommodate employee religious practices unless doing so
would result in more than minimal cost to the employer. But a bill
currently before Congress is designed to require the same high level of
workplace accommodation for religion as for disability. If the bill passes,
all employers will be expected to make good-faith, reasonable accommodations
for sincerely held beliefs unless doing so would cause“undue hardship”
to the employer, notes Karpeles.
“Religious discrimination claims have increased at a higher rate than
many other kinds of discrimination claims over the last several years,”
he says. Like many accommodations for disability, most accommodations for
religion are simple enough. And like other accommodations to individual
needs, they can increase employee good will and retention and make good
For example, having several floating holidays available is a noncontroversial
way to accommodate a variety of religious needs. And, “If an employee
needs a particular type of food based on sincerely held religious beliefs,
why not try to accommodate those beliefs if you can?”Karpeles asks.
opening the dialog
At Aventis Pharmaceuticals (Somerset, NJ), Mary Martinez, senior
diversity manager, notes that “Apart from Christmas, none of our set
holidays are of a religious nature.” Other religious observances are
accommodated by personal days, flexible hours and four floating
holidays. “If someone needs to leave early for Ramadan or Rosh
Hashanah, for instance, our flexible hours can accommodate that for the
most part,” she say
The company also issues a diversity calendar that covers not only
cultural but also religious holidays. “People use it to avoid
conflicts when they’re making assignments, or scheduling important
meetings and events,” Martinez reports. “It also helps because it
explains a little about the holiday and the religion.”
Aventis diversity training does not include a formal unit on religion,
but religions are covered among other topics at the company’s Lunch &
Learn sessions. “It’s important to open a dialog. We don’t want
aggressive proselytizing going on, but it’s perfectly all right to
share beliefs as part of who you are,” Martinez notes.
For Lynn Roesch, an Aventis human resources manager, accommodating
religious needs can mean keeping valuable employees. “We have
programs to balance work and family life. We look to retain people,”
Rashad Barmil of Aventis:
Rashad Barmil is a Palestinian and a Muslim. He sees his religion as
bringing something positive to the workplace. “Islam pushes you to do
a great job. You’ve got to do it right and be honest and correct. You
must perform well at all times,” he says.
Barmil joined Aventis last year as a web development analyst,
responsible for supporting U.S. internet operations. The Aventis system,
he points out, involves different sites, different vendors and different
programming languages. “We’re very busy,” he says.
Before starting at Aventis, Barmil worked as a software engineer at
American Express Bank (New York, NY) and Hoffman LaRoche (Nutley, NJ).
His 1999 BSCS is from Montclair State University (Montclair, NJ), and
he’s working on an MSCS at the New Jersey Institute of Technology
(NJIT, Newark, NJ).
Although Muslims are required to pray five times a day, this doesn’t
interfere with Barmil’s job. “I take five to seven minutes to
pray, but it only comes twice during the work day. It provides
relaxation and inspires you to go back to work.”
On Fridays, Muslims usually go to the mosque to pray, but again this
isn’t a problem for Barmil. “Prayer is 12:30 to 1:30, so I go to
the mosque instead of lunch. I come in early and stay a little later
that day, and the mosque is only ten minutes away.”
Barmil finds that his job accommodates the other requirements of Islam
as well. For example, Muslims are required to fast during the daylight
hours of Ramadan, a twenty-eight-day winter observance. But as Mary
Martinez points out, flextime hours allow Muslims to get home to break
the fast at the appropriate time.
Islam has only two holidays: Eid, which celebrates the end of Ramadan,
and the Haj. Once in a lifetime, Muslims are required to make the Haj, a
pilgrimage to Mecca, the holy city in Saudi Arabia. Airline schedules
accommodate this need, and most Muslims are able to fulfill the
obligation during vacation time.
Barmil regrets the many misconceptions about Islam in this country.
“I would like people to understand Islam. Any society has good and
bad people. You can’t judge an entire culture on the actions of a
Hindu Smruti Jani of Aventis:
ultimately the same
Smruti Jani joined Aventis last year and now works as an IT manager in
the company’s Enterprise Resource Center (ERC). Jani received a BSCS
from Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ) in 1989 and an MS in MIS
from NJIT in 1993. She was an independent consultant for three years
and, prior to that, a senior analyst in IT at Merck (Whitehouse Station,
NJ) before coming to Aventis.
“We have a mix of business function and IT people working in the
ERC,” she explains. “The system is SAP. We are streamlining
existing processes and coming up with solutions that help make the
company more efficient globally. Right now we’re upgrading our entire
Jani was born in Gujarat, India, and came to this country as a child. It
was her father, an electrical engineer, who inspired her to go into a
technical field. “In my family you had two choices, to be either a
doctor or an engineer,” Jani says with a laugh.
Jani is a Hindu. “My family is very interested in rites and rituals.
No one ever questions these things in India, but growing up here, I
questioned a lot of things. I had to know why,” Jani says.
Nevertheless, every morning she joins her family in lighting a lamp
which burns ghee (clarified butter), and praying for good health and
good sense. She is also a vegetarian.
Hindus celebrate many holidays, which Jani says are determined by the
lunar calendar. “I usually take a day off for our New Year’s day,
Diwali, which comes in the fall. So far, everyone at work
Like her colleague Barmil, Jani feels that her religion plays an
important role in her job. “It teaches you to be the best that you
can and to take pride in your work.” She notes that a lot of people
she meets don’t know about Hinduism. “I don’t think religion
should be such a taboo subject. Ignorance fuels fear.”
In fact, Jani likes Christmas parties, even in the office. “It
isn’t a problem for me. A lot of companies now do the politically
correct thing, but I miss the spirit and fun of it all.
“When I was a child my best friend was a Christian, and I wondered
why she went to church and I went to temple. But my dad taught me that
we’re all climbing one mountain, just taking different paths.
We’re ultimately going for the same thing.”
Muslim Sadeq Al-Hasan:
IMEG at Intel
Networking groups at a number of companies help employees find others
who share their religious backgrounds and practices. Some groups meet
together for worship or study. Some also offer education to interested
co-workers. At Intel, Sadeq Al-Hasan is deeply involved in the Islamic
For the past four years Al-Hasan has worked as a validation engineer at
the Folsom, CA facility of Intel (Santa Clara, CA). He validates the
logic design of processors in the Pentium family and ensures that they
are up to spec. He received a BSCE from the Jordanian University of
Science and Technology (Amman, Jordan) in 1995 and an MSCE from Wilkes
University (Wilkes-Barre, PA) in 1997.
Al-Hasan is national president of the Intel Muslim Employee Group
(IMEG), a networking group which he co-founded four years ago.
Nationwide, IMEG has about 300 members.
The group’s main goals are to increase awareness of Islamic culture
and to make Intel a better place to work for everyone. The group
participates in events like local food drives. It has its own internal
website, and serves as a resource for both Muslim and non-Muslim
employees. “We had a situation where a Muslim employee died and his
manager wanted to pay his respects. He came to IMEG to find out the
proper etiquette,” Al-Hasan recalls.
Intel provides its Muslim employees with prayer rooms: one or more at
each of six sites. As tradition demands, these rooms have no furniture.
“The prayer moves require that,” says Al-Hasan. “We need to
face in the direction of Mecca and be in a straight row, and furniture
would be in the way.
“On Fridays we use flex time to take an extended lunch hour so we can
go to the mosque,” Al-Hasan explains. “And during Ramadan we start
work early so we can leave before sunset to break our fast.”
The education provided by the website goes far toward creating an
atmosphere of understanding, Al-Hasan believes. For example, Muslims are
forbidden to drink alcohol, and many prefer not to attend events where
alcohol is served. “It helps if everyone understands why we are doing
this, so they know we aren’t just being antisocial.
“Before we pray, especially on Fridays, we have to make ablutions.
Some people may wonder why we are washing ourselves at work. It’s
better if they understand,” Al-Hasan says.
Even the cafeteria at Intel is sensitive to the dietary requirements of
its patrons’ religions. “They color code the utensils so that
those used for pork aren’t used for other food,” Al-Hasan says.
“Vegetarian meals are always available and food cooked with wine is
marked as such.”
Brett Branch: IBCN at Intel
Like Barmil, Al-Hasan and Jani, Evangelical Christian Brett Branch finds
that his faith gives him focus and contributes to his performance on the
job. A software engineer in Intel’s Hillsboro, OR facility, Branch
manages a small team that provides infrastructure for the R&D lab.
He started as a temporary employee delivering packages. “Then I got
put in the lab where I did Unix systems admin and put PCs together,”
Branch says. That job evolved into work with the tech support
department. He became a liaison between engineering and IT, did software
prototyping, and began his current job last year.
Branch received an associates degree in general studies from Clackamas
Community College (Oregon City, OR) in 1989. Over the years Intel has
sent him to various training courses, and now he’s completing a
degree in business admin at Warner Pacific College (Portland, OR).
At work, Branch is a member of the Intel Bible-based Christian Network
(IBCN), an Evangelical Christian group. Like IMEG, IBCN has its own
website. It provides networking opportunities for Christians, and for
people who want to know more about the Christian faith. At the Hillsboro
site, the group sponsors a Monday prayer meeting and Bible study on
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and brings in speakers on work/faith-
The importance of Intel’s support is clear. “There’s been an
industry attitude that you check your beliefs at the door,” says
Branch. “But Intel’s support allows you to express yourself, to
feel free to bring it up.” But not in an aggressive way: “We’ve
drawn a line and none of the groups proselytize,” says Branch.
“We’ve done a remarkable job of all getting along,” Branch
notes. At the time IBCN was formed, an unrelated radical Christian group
in Oregon had begun a series of antigay initiatives, so some members of
the Intel Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual Employees group (IGLOBE) viewed the
new group with alarm.
But Branch says both IBCN and IGLOBE members managed to keep open minds
and meet as employees first. “We were able to overcome those initial
problems and we’ve ended up with a lot of productive working
relationships despite early anxiety on both sides,” he declares.
Ricki Henry: Chai at
Ricki Henry has been with American Express (New York, NY) for twelve
years and works at the company’s Phoenix, AZ technical center as a
project manager. She is also head of Chai, the company’s networking
group for Jewish employees. “The networks are wonderful,” Henry
declares. “They give you an opportunity to educate. It encourages
Chai is the Hebrew word for life. The group was founded in 1998 by a
group of employees in Phoenix, and today the organization has nearly 300
registered members in four chapters across the U.S.
Henry began her working career with a 1968 BS in math from the
University of Florida (Gainesville, FL). “It was difficult then for a
woman with a degree in math, and degrees in computer science didn’t
exist. Nobody knew what to do with me."
She started as an insurance claims adjuster at Pacific Life (Newport
Beach, CA). “Within a year, someone there was installing a computer
system and took me on.”
Henry worked for Pacific Life for nineteen years. In 1988 she moved to
Phoenix as a senior programmer/analyst for American Express. Right now,
her mission is ensuring that the infrastructure will support future
Her religion is a large part of her life, Henry says, and the Chai
network has provided support. “You can feel very isolated. The
network and the company encourage you to be who you are.”
One of Chai’s missions is to try to represent all minority religions.
“We have a diversity calendar at American Express and managers are
encouraged to consult it to check that they’re not conflicting with
major holidays” when they schedule meetings.
Team-building events can bring their own challenges. “Everyone has
differences on a team and you have to talk openly about them. For
instance, Jehovah’s Witnesses can’t celebrate birthdays, so you
don’t use birthday celebrations as a team-building event.
“When conflict does arise, we call it a ‘teachable moment.’
Most people have good hearts and good intentions, and we’re usually
able to reschedule or replan.
“You have to recognize that the workplace is a community,” Henry
muses. “You bring your entire self, including your beliefs, to work.
That’s what’s so wonderful about American Express – they
don’t tiptoe around religion.”
Beverly Sneed of AmEx:
the Baha’i point of view
Beverly C. Sneed also works at the AmEx technical center, where, as
director of website development, she supports the Financial Advisor
Group website. “My group looks at promoting reusable software and
evaluating the testing environment to reduce cost,” Sneed says.
Sneed’s career in IT goes back to 1975. Blue Cross/Blue Shield
(Jacksonville, FL) trained her as a programmer and from there she moved
up the ladder. In 1982 she joined Computer Associated Services
(Jacksonville, FL) as a supervisor of the data control area. In 1985 she
took a position in software development with Seaboard Coastline Railroad
(Jacksonville, FL) and headed up the company’s first diversity
initiative. She started with American Express as a software developer in
the Fort Lauderdale, FL office in 1990.
She has a 1997 BS in business management from the University of Phoenix
(Phoenix, AZ), and has nearly completed a masters in business
administration with an emphasis on e-business.
Sneed is a member of the Baha’i faith, a religion that began in the
1860s. Mirza Husayn ‘Ali Nuri, a Persian, “received a message from
God and took the name Baha’u’llah,” Sneed explains.
Members of the Baha’i faith believe in the oneness of God, the
equality of race, gender and class, and the progressive revelation of
God’s word. “We believe in Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Moses, Buddha,
and Zoroaster. We consider them all manifestations of God.
Baha’u’llah is the most recent manifestation,” says Sneed.
Baha’is are prohibited from drinking alcohol, using drugs or
“When I first came to American Express, we had the traditional
holidays,” Sneed remembers. “In the Baha’i faith we celebrate
nine or more holy days, so I would take vacation time for that.
“I became very involved in diversity and applied for a job as
diversity manager. We decided Christianity wasn’t the only religion,
so we instituted paid time off instead of fixed holidays. Now there are
zero set holidays,” Sneed explains.
“American Express sponsors a number of networks regarding religion.
But for the most part we’re here to work.”
Christian Lou Rodriguez:
Salt at American Express
Lou Rodriguez is a local leader of Salt, the American Express Christian
network group, which has over 200 members at the Phoenix campus. The
name Salt is a reference to Jesus’ words in the New Testament,
“You are the salt of the earth.”
Rodriguez began his career with a 1984 BS in human biology from Stanford
University Palo Alto, CA) and a 1988 MBA from Arizona State University
(Tempe, AZ). But when he began working with a healthcare group, he found
he didn’t like the medical bureaucracy. In 1990 he joined American
Express as an operations assistant, rising to project manager in the
“Then three years ago I moved to our technologies division as a
project leader. Now I support one of the senior VPs of technologies
operations and lead large employee, customer and shareholder projects in
his organization,” he says.
The company’s support of the Salt network is “a blessing” to
Rodriguez. “We support people personally and professionally. We hold
a weekly Bible study on campus, and the company allows us to gather
together for prayer sessions. Many large organizations frown on that
type of activity.”
Even though Rodriguez’ faith calls on him to proselytize, he says a
balance is necessary. “I don’t consider it a problem. Despite our
exuberance, we have to be respectful of others. My belief allows me to
handle the ups and downs, to be even-tempered.”
Lucent: an open workplace
At Lucent Technologies (Murray Hill, NJ), religion is addressed in the
diversity training courses, though not as an isolated topic, explains
Helen Davis, manager of global diversity strategy. “Sensitivity to
religious observances and dietary needs is an expression of one of
Lucent’s values: a deep respect for the employee and the
contributions of that employee to the success of a team,” she
“For example, we would allow a Bible study group to use a company
conference room. Scheduling prayers at certain times of the day would be
discussed with an employee’s supervisor. We encourage everyone to be
aware of major religious holidays when it comes to scheduling meetings
Although there are no formal religious affinity groups at the company, a
number of religious clubs and prayer groups meet regularly.
Christian Paul Wilford:
support at Lucent
As a Christian, Paul Wilford feels his faith contributes considerably
toward his work performance. “I believe everyone is significant and
has a contribution to make in what we’re doing here,” he says.
Wilford is a senior director in advanced technology at Bell Labs, the
R&D arm of Lucent Technologies. He manages a department that develops
video and data networking projects.
He received his 1978 BSEE and 1979 MSEE from Cornell University (Ithaca,
NY). He started work at AT&T, and went with Lucent when it became an
independent company. After ten years in the optical transmission
business unit, he became part of the high-definition TV (HDTV) advanced
development team and moved into his present job.
Wilford appreciates the floating holidays the company provides, and
takes advantage of flexible hours to participate in church activities.
“The atmosphere here is supportive,” he says. “People are
interested in each other’s religions. We have clubs and religious
study groups, and sometimes we invite other groups in if we have a
special speaker or a meal. We feel comfortable attending their events as
at United Defense
United Defense LP,
Armament Systems Division (Arlington, VA) designs and manufactures
weapons for the U.S. Army and Navy. The division is hiring engineers and
other technical people, according to Paul Kope, manager of
organizational and human resources development.
Kope notes that the company’s diversity training addresses religion
only in a general sense. But members of the diversity council have a
broad range of backgrounds, including a variety of religions, he says.
The company provides flextime and three floating holidays to accommodate
employees’ religious needs.
Vedanta Saumya Sanyal:
focus on what’s important
Saumya Sanyal is a senior project manager for both internal and external
IT at UD Armament Systems. “We have an integrated data environment,
which is used to electronically create and deliver designs to the
government,” he explains. “The computing environment is integrated
and distributed, so the government and other contractors can work on the
Sanyal has a 1985 BS in computer hardware from the University of Houston
(Houston, TX), a 1988 MS in electro-optics from U Houston-Clear Lake,
and a 1995 MS in software engineering from St. Thomas University (St.
Paul, MN). He worked as a systems engineer at Emerson Electric (now
Space Electronics Inc, St. Louis, MO) and at FMC (Chicago, IL) before
hiring on at UD’s Minneapolis, MN facility in 1992.
Sanyal is a practicing member of the Vedanta sect of Hinduism. Hinduism
has several different forms, he explains, and “The Vedanta Society is
more philosophical and less ritualistic than some.
“Our basic tenets are to cause no harm and respect the divine that
exists in everything. We have the concept of Maya – that the world is
an illusion. This lets us focus on what is important. Hinduism is a very
adaptive religion, and this flexibility allows us to maintain ourselves
in many different situations.”
Sanyal says the company has responded to increasing religious diversity
by becoming religion-neutral. Other than Christmas, there are no set
holidays of a religious nature.
Although the company cafeteria does not yet serve a strictly vegetarian
cuisine, Sanyal does note that as the vegetarian movement is embraced by
health and environmental enthusiasts, menus everywhere are becoming more
ecumenical. “And I don’t personally find barriers because I’m
more flexible in my beliefs,” he says.
a new dimension to diversity
At Seagate Technology LLC (Scotts Valley, CA), Susana Escalante,
corporate diversity manager and Tammy Sisson, diversity representative,
agree that the company is open to religious diversity.
“We have brown bag luncheons that cover diversity issues like
religion. We might do something on Muslim beliefs or Jewish holidays,
for example. We try to be inclusive,” says Escalante.
Sisson adds that some sites maintain quiet rooms for prayer. The company
asks its managers to make accommodations for prayer and holy days, and
provides three floating holidays. If more time is needed, employees can
use their vacation time or take unpaid leave.
Leeway is given at lunch on Fridays for Muslims to go to the mosque, and
Jews may leave early on Fridays to be home in time for sundown, as long
as these arrangements don’t conflict with business needs. “And
that seldom happens,” Escalante adds.
Informal religious groups meet over lunch and are free to use the
conference rooms. “The Seagate population is very diverse,”
Escalante notes. “We have a lot of Asians and people from the
Mideast, so the religious dimension is a question that emerged early on
for us. We’ve been accommodating religious diversity for a long
Like many companies, Microsoft (Redmond, WA) has no formal religious
employee networks, but does have informal religious groups, says
Bernadine Staten, diversity consultant. The company provides three
floating holidays and a diversity calendar that flags major religious
holidays. Microsoft is also installing an online tool called GlobeSmart
that allows employees to learn about various religious practices.
At Sprint, Nancy Burford is program manager for technology services
staffing for the global markets group. She notes that the company has a
liberal policy regarding floating holidays: one for every quarter.
Many companies are still in the process of examining religious diversity
and formulating policies. “It’s a new dimension to diversity and
inclusion, and it’s becoming more visible,” says Lakiba Pittman,
global diversity and inclusion program manager at Agilent Technologies
Inc (Palo Alto, CA).
Pittman reports that although the company has no special diversity
training modules dealing with religion right now, this could change in
the future. Quiet rooms are provided for prayer or meditation.
Coping with evolution
More and more companies find themselves dealing with workers who are no
longer content to leave their religion home when they come to work. The
evolving nature of this new form of diversity activism, peaceable as it
is in most cases, is certainly a challenge. In fact, some companies
declined to participate in this article based on the controversial
nature of the subject.
Lawyer Michael Karpeles feels that accommodation is by far the best
solution. “Sophisticated companies understand the law in regard to
religion. They are on top of this issue,” he says.
Laurel McKee Ranger is a freelance business writer headquartered in
©Copyright 2001, Diversity/Careers
Page last updated/revised 111701
Return to the Bahá'í Association's Main Web Page