After a lengthy recruiting effort, executives of a global financial firm couldn't understand why a prized potential hire went to the competition. Was it the pay? The perks? The people? The location?
"She said that she found out the company had a reputation that is was not hijab-friendly," Joyce Dubensky, CEO of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, recalled from her discussion with the executives. "She wore (the head covering for Muslim women) and she didn’t want to go to a workplace where she wouldn’t feel welcome."
Dubensky likes to tell that story to underscore a point her organization stresses when training companies and organizations on embracing diversity: Accommodating the religious needs of a workforce can boost morale and the bottom line.
Dubensky said business is finally responding. She cited research by DiversityInc that found 78 percent of the organization's Top 50 diversified companies now offer floating religious holidays to employees compared with 42 percent nine years ago, and 70 percent provide prayer rooms today compared with 32 percent eight years ago. Awareness by employers and employees alike may continue to increase as America's religious landscape becomes more diverse and issues of religious freedom arise as a result.
"I’ve always called religion the stepchild of the diversity and inclusion movement," she said. "It has been mostly ignored in the workplace (compared to race, ethnicity and gender.) But, increasingly people are talking about it and now they are starting to do something about it."
Why it has taken so long for faith to be recognized as something employees can bring to the workplace is a mystery.
Religion and disability hold the distinction of being the only areas employers must accommodate under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, meaning they must ensure that the disabled can perform their assignments and workers can observe their faith. And based on surveys by the Pew Research Center and Gallup showing 77 percent to 79 percent of Americans identify with a faith tradition, there are a lot of religious people in the workplace.
Yet religion has remained the proverbial elephant in the room at the office — a topic human resources people feared was too sensitive and personal to address from a policy standpoint and yet loaded with liability if someone was offended by an insensitive remark or unintended impact of a company practice.
"Faith has existed in the workplace for years, but what's new is that only now are people doing something about it," Dubensky said.
Employers have learned the hard way that ignoring the faith needs of their workers exposes them to labor enforcement penalties. Statistics from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission show that from 1997 to 2012, religious discrimination complaints soared 123 percent, with a high of 4,151 complaints lodged in 2011.
The EEOC statistics also indicate employees have been slow to understand their rights to live out their beliefs at work, as long as it doesn't become an unreasonable burden on their employer.
Dubenksy said 9/11 was a turning point that put a bright light on religious discrimination against Muslims in the workplace. As a result of the complaints, awareness by employees and employers of religious rights in the workplace took hold and has grown ever since.
Though respect for religion at work has increased, the connection for individuals between their faiths and their jobs has always been strong. A recent study by social scientists at Brandeis University showed faith is a powerful influence on the choices religious people make about their occupations, as well as to where they live, who they marry and how many children they have.
Fifty-six percent of those who said religion was very or extremely important to them said their faith was a factor in their career choice. Of those who said religion was somewhat important, half as many — 27 percent — said faith factored into their decision on an occupation.
"People who place a high premium on religion are going to factor religion into their decision-making and choice of jobs," said Emily Sigalow, an author of the study published in the June 2012 issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. "Faith informs and motivates decisions in complicated ways."
The whole person
An example of that complicated connection is the experience of Scott Thompson, a 48-year-old public relations professional who recently took a new job handling media relations and marketing for a hospital network in Tacoma, Wash.
Thompson had been searching for new employment for about a year. After his interview with Franciscan Health System, a series of events — from the job offer to selling his old house in Utah to moving his expectant wife and 3-year-old son into another home in Washington — took place so quickly and smoothly that he is now certain prayers were answered and divine intervention was at play.
"I do pray and have a strong belief in God and seek his counsel," said Thompson, who was raised a Baptist but does not currently attend a church. "It didn't click at the time, but when I look back at all that had to happen to be here, I think there had to be some divine plan. This is where I am meant to be."
His current employer is affiliated with Catholic Health Initiatives. Thompson said the culture of his new job is a stark difference from his previous employer, where he never felt like he was progressing.
"Faith probably did play a part in realizing it was a better fit," Thompson said reflecting on the change. "Here, they treat you as a whole person and not just as an employee."
But religious affiliates aren't the only organizations that consider all aspects of an employee's life, including the spiritual. Andy Newland, president of Denver-based Hercules Industries, said the regional heating, ventilation and air conditioning supplier understands that work is not the top priority of its employees.
"Their family and their faith are the No. 1 priority in their lives. So you acknowledge that and allow your employees the freedom to participate in whatever activities their faith might require," Newland said. "That does go a long way toward team building and productivity. It is just common sense. But in today’s biz environment, that gets lost in the demands for 80-hour work weeks."
He explained that Hercules has a responsibility to respect its employees' commitments to their family and faith while providing a constructive atmosphere at work that encourages working together.
"It makes them more efficient workers and better people outside of work," he said. "We know that faith is important to us as business owners. So, if it's important to us, it’s important to our employees."
Free exercise rights
Hercules is one of nearly 30 companies that have sued the government over the Affordable Care Act's mandate to provide their employees contraceptive coverage. The companies argue that covering birth control directly or indirectly violates their constitutional right to practice their religion.
The increased emphasis of private enterprise on the religious needs of employees is putting a finer point on a key issue in the lawsuits: Does a commercial enterprise have rights of religious conscience?
In legal pleadings, the government has argued that the business owners have the right to practice their faith but those rights don't extend to the corporate entity.
"By definition, a secular employer does not engage in any 'exercise of religion,'" Department of Justice attorneys said in a motion to dismiss Hercules' complaint. "Having chosen the secular, for-profit path, the company may not impose its owners’ religious beliefs on its employees."
But devout business owners argue how they conduct their business is a reflection of their religious beliefs, which is why they find providing birth control through their health plan a violation of their right to live out their faith.
"Faith plays a role in the lives of believers no matter what they are doing," said attorney Matt Bowman of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing Hercules. "It's not possible to declare areas of life, like business or education or health care, as areas where religion is banished by the government."
The federal circuit courts are split on the question, which means the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually have to determine whether religious freedom extends to the operations of a secular corporation.
Meantime, Dubensky predicts companies will continue take a proactive approach to addressing the religious needs of their employees.
"We are getting more and more calls and companies are looking for information on a range of things," she said. "In the next 15 years you will see an explosion of accommodations."