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Religion finds firm footing in some offices

Religion finds firm footing in some offices

By Ellen WulfhorstWed Dec 6, 7:55 AM ET

Attorney Dave Brown holds a Bible study group at his California firm and finds the weekly meetings grapple with everyday workplace quandaries as often as they look at religious issues.

"It's not just the Bible. A lot of the books we study are just about being a good person and just being human and understanding how to relate to people," he said. "It gives you a forum to talk."

The growth of diversity in the workplace, along with the influence of religion in America, has brought faith -- once as taboo in the office as talk of sex and politics -- to the job, experts say.

"Work is invading people's personal lives, so people are bringing more of their personal lives to the workplace," said Paula Brantner, director of Workplace Fairness, a Washington, D.C.-based group that promotes employee rights.

Religious expression at work may take the form of affinity groups or faith networks, prayers at business meetings or the citation of Biblical verse in office memos.

"We have an increase in the number of employers and employees who are choosing not to hide their faith," said Brad Dacus of the Pacific Justice Institute in Sacramento, California, which provides legal defense for religious freedoms.

Being faith-friendly has bottom-line benefits, said Douglas Noll, co-author of "Sex, Politics & Religion at the Office."

"You can gain a competitive advantage that will blow the competition away for all the obvious reasons -- high retention rate, happy employees, morale, unleashed creativity," he said.

"What employers have asked employees to do since the time of the assembly plants, when Ford first started, was to check their humanity at the door and come in as automatons and just do their work," he said. "That doesn't work any more.

Religious practices naturally create tensions, particularly around the holidays, said Michelle Weber of the Religious Diversity in the Workplace at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.


"If you could poll a random sample of people on the street, and you asked them if they have religious tensions at their workplace, people often have a hard time identifying when they occur," she said. "But around this season, when it's so upfront, it's just a lot more evident and hard to ignore that there are these tensions and these competing interests."

In addition, the political and social climate in America makes workers feel free to bring their religious values into the office, she added.

"People are thinking, well, if our political leaders are open about the fact that their faith is really influencing them and they're bringing it to their job, they should be able to do that too," she said.

Added to that is the religious diversity of immigrants and exposure by U.S. companies to foreign firms that may begin the day with prayer or meditation, experts say.

And aging workers tend to place growing importance on religion while younger workers are less apt to separate their personal, or religious, lives from their professional lives, said Margaret Regan, head of the FutureWork Institute, a consulting firm specializing in diversity issues.

"It is surging as an issue, and it's not going to go away, so learning how to appropriately make it part of what goes on in corporations is what everybody is struggling with," she said.

At the Brown and Streza law firm in Irvine, California, Brown said he is careful that the Bible group is voluntary and does not violate the law that protects U.S. workers from discrimination on the basis of religion. Nor does he permit anyone to proselytize among employees, he said.

"If they want to join, they join. If they don't, they don't," Brown said. "We're just all trying to grow and learn and be better people."

These days, workplace disputes over religion tend to be conflicts over values, such as Muslim cab drivers who won't carry passengers who have alcohol or the fundamental Christian pharmacist who won't fill birth control prescriptions, experts say.

"Employees are injecting their own values and faith and principles much more into the workplace," Brantner said.

"It's moved from a religious practice or observance, compelled by the tenets of a particular faith, to a more broad-based ability to uphold your personal belief system even when it conflicts with your job," she said.


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