Transcend Your Office: When Work's a Religious Experience

Last Updated Oct 3, 2007 4:45 PM EDT

prayer-board.jpgHow do you know where to draw the line when it comes to accommodating religion in the workplace? If clients are offended by a pentagram-wearing Pagan employee, can you ask her to keep the symbol hidden? If a worker objects to working on the weekends because of the Sabbath (as recently happened at Vonage), but the job requires that commitment, can you replace him with someone who doesn't need accommodation? Can you offer just one weekend day off? That sounds reasonable, right?

The problem with religious discrimination legislation as it stands -- stipulating that employers must reasonably accommodate "sincerely held religious practices" unless it imposes an undue hardship on the business' conduct -- is that it leaves room for interpretation. Who decides what is reasonable? For example, earlier this year, Target provided alternatives to Muslim cashiers who objected to handling pork products; they could either choose to work in a different department or wear gloves. If on any given day the store is understaffed, and Muslim employees choose not to ring up customers, this could easily impose an undue hardship on the store. Customers don't want see tons of workers stocking the floor and just a handful behind the registers. And those customers will go elsewhere.

Religious discrimination claims aren't new, but they're certainly more prevalent now. Over the last ten years, religious discrimination complaints have increased more than 60 percent, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commissions. What's the cause? David Steingard, assistant director of the Arrupe Center for Business Ethics at Saint Joseph's University ventures a guess:

"...in a post 9-11 world, the rise in fundamentalism among a host of religions is also contributing. Religions have become more prominent in how they want freedom to be expressed in the workplace, and we have a 'what's in it for me' kind of thing. It can become ridiculous, with everyone making a claim."
David Miller, executive director of Yale University's Center for Faith and Culture and author of the 2007 book, "God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement," suggests creating "faith friendly" approaches to accommodate both popular, general spirituality and more specific, orthodox religion. For example, employers can provide a space for prayer, or allow employees to swap holiday time.

Like any personal affiliation, religion can create divisiveness within a team. How has your organization dealt with this issue?

(Prayer Board image by ninjaneil902)