By Jeff Haanen
How do should I think about the role of faith in my company? How do corporations in America today handle issues surrounding spirituality in the workplace?
I recently had this conversation with David Miller who leads Princeton University’s Faith at Work Initiative and is the author of God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement (Oxford University Press, 2011). He’s been asking these questions for decades and has worked with everybody from Tyson Foods to, more recently, the executive team at Citigroup. As a trained ethicist, he often is called in to field thorny moral questions among America’s corporate elite (The Banker Turned Seminarian Trying to Save Citigroup’s Soul, Wall Street Journal). But he’s also a trusted voice among Fortune 500 CEOs on the role faith should – and should not – play in the workplace.
David has proposed a simple model that I find incredibly helpful, especially for leaders of publicly traded companies or companies with co-founders or investors who come from different faith backgrounds. In my own work among executives in Denver, I’ve found David’s framework to be a practically helpful tool helping companies create open, non-threatening environments for employees to bring their whole selves to work – including their faith.
There are four main positions that businesses and corporations take when it comes to the role of faith in the workplace.
In this framework, a company’s leadership has actively decided to avoid topics related to faith or religion. “That’s not appropriate here,” is the message, either overtly or implicitly. For example, Muslim prayer 5 times a day or Jewish dietary restrictions in the office kitchen are avoided as topics for dialogue. Faith in these contexts is seen as inappropriate for the workplace and best left for the home or a weekend church service. In the “faith avoiding” posture, religious expressions of employees are actively pushed to the margins or seen as irrelevant to the business.
Example: Abercrombie. Samantha Elauf, a Muslim teen, was turned down for a job at Abercrombie because she wore a headscarf. Though this case was a high-profile case of overt religious discrimination, many companies simply avoid the topic and are ill-prepared when issues of faith arise that affect the company. This posture toward faith is prevalent in many universities, governmental institutions and publicly-traded companies. They generally avoid the topic of religion or leave it to the HR department to deal with on an individual basis.
Challenge: On the most extreme side of the “faith avoiding” company, religious employees can fear being fired for expressing their beliefs. They often feel it necessary to hide their church, synagogue or mosque membership because of a perceived bias against them or the concern that they will be passed over for a promotion because of religious belief.
Though many companies default to this position because of not wanting to offend any one particular faith, this overcorrection can even be unconstitutional, as religious expression such as asking a co-worker to accept Jesus as Savior is protected by the first amendment.
Yet for nearly all companies, the problem with this posture toward religion has to do with respecting and embracing a diverse workforce. “Cultural competence is a big buzz word right now,” says George Bennett, president of the New York based Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. “But you can’t be culturally competent without understanding something about religion, because religion is the largest component of culture. You have to figure out how to tap into your internal diversity resources.” Avoiding the core motivations people have about life, meaning, and God prevents the opportunity for a company to harness an employee’s deepest passions and beliefs for the good of the organization.
More common in corporate America, however, is the second option: faith-tolerant. Here religion is tolerated yet not embraced by a business or corporation. Instead of avoiding the topic, the company allows an employee’s personal beliefs to inform their work and job responsibilities. Faith-tolerant companies will often provide accommodation to employees through the HR department. For example, policies will be made that address harassment on a religious basis, train supervisors in religious accommodation, and adapt for flexible work schedules based on religious holidays or holy days.
Example: Fannie Mae. The home finance giant has worked to include employee needs – including religious ones – into its culture. The diversity office sponsors 16 employee network groups, including five that are religiously affiliated. They also have a multicultural calendar and allow for significant cultural and religious expression, whether that be religious or secular in nature.
The faith-tolerant model provides a limited place for religious observance and practice in the company or organization, yet does not actively host or initiate conversations around faith in the workplace.
Challenge: The greatest challenge with the faith tolerant is that employees want to be more than tolerated by their employers. They want to bring their full selves to work, especially Millennials. “The old paradigm of leaving your beliefs behind when you go to work is no longer satisfying,” says Stew Friedman, professor of management and director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project. “More than ever, people want work that fits in with a larger sense of purpose in life. For many people, that includes a concept of God, or something like it.” Simply tolerating expressions of faith when then arise falls short of most employee’s hopes to be fully embraced and accepted at the place they work.
The third option is perhaps the most cited among Christian networks of business leaders: faith- based. In this model, the faith of the founders or owners is woven into the day-to-day operations of the company. This can mean the CEO is overt about his or her own faith in corporate communication, adopts religious symbolism throughout the company’s corporate culture, and will sometimes hold prayer groups, Bible studies, or evangelistic meetings at the workplace. In these contexts, executives have self-consciously woven religious practice into the actual business itself and are overt about their own ultimate beliefs and how they have influenced the company, whether these be Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or secular.
Examples: Chick-Fil-A is the typical example for a faith-based company. Their restaurants are closed on Sunday (the Christian Sabbath day) and contemporary Christian music is played at the restaurants. Yet the ways entrepreneurs and CEOs express their faith is broad and diverse, and span the religious spectrum.
Talia Mashiach, founder of Eved, an e-commerce company gleans wisdom from the Torah for her company; Islamic bank owners follow a unique set of regulations because of the Koran’s prohibition of charging interest; and Whole Foods stocks Shambhala Sun, “today’s best-selling and most widely read Buddhist magazine,” because the founder John Mackey is a practicing Buddhist who spends “morning time with Buddha” and in meditation. Entrepreneurs practice their faiths through their companies. Though not all of these companies would consider themselves necessarily faith-based, these companies strongly favor one religion or set of religious beliefs that affects the entire company.
Challenge: Though this model can work well for privately held companies where the leadership shares a faith, or in smaller businesses where all or nearly all the employees share the same faith, the challenge here is three-fold.
(1) Employees who don’t share the faith of the CEO can feel ostracized or not included among “insiders” in the company because of diverging religious views.
(2) CEOs often underestimate how much power they wield in a company. Without even knowing it, because of their influence their faith-expression can feel paternalistic or even coercive.
(3) It becomes difficult for a CEO to know if a manager or employee is expressing genuine interest in the CEO’s faith, or if that person may be simply doing what it takes to get a promotion or greater work opportunity.
Though this is often the unintended consequence of building a “faith-based” company, genuine space needs to be made in these contexts for those who disagree with the religious views of the owners.
In a faith-friendly business, everybody’s ultimate beliefs (where those be secular, atheistic, Christian or Buddhist) are welcome. Leadership neither avoids topics of faith or merely tolerates religious expression – yet neither does it favor one view over another.
Instead, it actively welcomes conversations about the beliefs, backgrounds, and religious faith that employees hold dear and shape their motivations. Just as a company would welcome conversations about race, sexuality, or gender, so religion has a welcomed place at the table. Employees need not fear being fired for their religious beliefs, yet neither should they assume everybody agrees with them.
This perspective is based on essential commitments to pluralism and freedom of religious expression.
Example: Tyson Foods. “We strive to be a faith-friendly company,” says the Tyson Foods core values statement. With 113,000 employees and $23.004 billion in assets (2015), Tyson Foods has an enormously diverse workforce. Yet instead of avoiding or merely tolerating faith, they encourage its expression. One practice Tyson Foods has embraced is corporate chaplaincy. They have “the largest known private-sector corporate chaplaincy program,” allowing for a wide variety of faith and personal issues to be brought into the company. David Miller says about John Tyson, the grandson of the company founder (with whom he’s close personal friends), “He wanted people to be able to bring their whole selves to work.” They provide team members at Tyson Foods an opportunity to bring that whole self, including that spiritual side, and not feel like religion must be “checked at the door.”
For those trying to build faith-friendly companies, this is not just a strategy for avoiding PR disasters. (For example, Emma Green at The Atlantic reports, “Cargill Meat Solutions fired roughly 190 Muslim immigrants from Somalia after they protested the company’s break policies.” Wholesale firing of Muslims for practicing their faith was a media disaster, one that other CEOs have sought to avoid.) It’s instead an attempt to welcome faith into the conversation about meaning in life, work and the world we share.
If faith is defined simply as an ultimate set of beliefs, the “faith-friendly” posture need not exclude secular humanists or atheists, as everybody has some set of ultimate beliefs that shape their motivations for work.
For the vast majority of CEOs who lead companies with a wide variety of religions and beliefs, I think the faith-friendly posture is the best option – both for them and for their employees.
As you consider your own leadership, how would you classify your company: faith-avoiding, faith-tolerant, faith-based or faith-friendly? What do you think you’d like to change, and how will you get there?