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 each other.

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 hostility.

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 hands.

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 business sense.

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,” Roesch says.

Rashad Barmil of Aventis:
understanding Islam
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 few.”

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 SAP environment.”

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 understands.”

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 networking group.

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.”

Evangelical Christian
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- related topics.

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
American Express
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 understanding.”

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 business needs.

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 gambling.

“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 fraud department.

“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 says.

“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 and events.”

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 well.”

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 design concurrently.”

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 time.”

Other accommodations
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 Randolph, NJ.

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