Accommodation is key to a faith-friendly futureApril 2011
How can companies act responsibly when it comes to the religious practices of their employees? EP looks at new advice from the Institute of Business Ethics
If you need to know how corporate reputation can be damaged by the perception that your workplace is unsympathetic to displays of religion, then look no further than British Airways, which took significant flak in 2010 over a court case in which a Christian employee unsuccessfully challenged a company rule that forbade her from wearing a cross on a chain around her neck.
The rule no longer exists, and BA now allows staff to wear a symbol of faith openly. But the damage was done. As Allen White, senior advisor at Business for Social Responsibility says: ‘If they don’t recognize the influence of cultural and spiritual traditions, company leaders may face unwelcome surprises that could jeopardize consumer and investor confidence in a company’s management acumen.’
The Institute of Business Ethics (IBE), which has just produced a paper entitled Religious practices in the workplace, notes that ‘it is important for employers to recognize that employees do not leave their religious beliefs… at the entrance to their place of work: it is integral to their lives’.
The IBE argues it is therefore imperative that companies take a proper look at how they can accommodate different (and often strongly held) convictions about religious practice.
By doing so they can not only avoid potential controversy such as that which dogged BA, but also help to improve employee morale, recruitment and retention of staff, create a more positive public image of the business, and even reap some financial benefits, even if these may only be in terms of avoiding costly lawsuits or tribunals.
The IBE approvingly quotes examples of codes of conduct at Thomson Reuters, Campbell’s Soup Company, Qwest, and Reed Elsevier that make specific mention of providing reasonable accommodation for religious practices. It says all businesses should consider doing so. But it adds that merely including a clause in the corporate code of ethics is ‘insufficient’. Policies must then be implemented.
The Employers Forum on Belief (EFB), a network of employers that promotes good practice in this area, says a ‘faith-friendly’ company will typically have a written policy on the subject that includes guidance on religious holiday leave, dress code, the provision of ‘quiet rooms’ for religious contemplation, food provided in staff cafeterias, and the acceptance of religious practices in the workplace, such as decoration of office space during religious holidays.
The Tanenbaum Center, a US-based organization that promotes interreligious understanding, adds that a good place for any business to start is to establish the general religious demographics of its employees. Then it needs to ask if:
there is a clearly articulated policy on religious holiday leave and if so whether it is clearly explained to employees
there is an avenue of communication between employees and management to address possible conflicts resulting from religious needs
various religious needs are taken into account when planning meetings, workshops, trips, dinners, and so on
any dress code potentially conflicts with religious practices
canteen meals cater for the religious needs of employees, such as kosher and halal
there is any provision for the formation of on-site religious affinity groups
religious practices such as prayers and meditation, are allowed in the workplace
there are any ways by which employees can express their specific religious practice needs.
The EFB stresses, however, that the most important achievement for any company is to generate a frame of mind ‘in which religious people feel appreciated rather than just tolerated.’ Rules alone will not do that.
Among companies to have achieved this state of being, according to the EBF, is Sodexo UK & Ireland, which offers cleaning, security, reception and food services to its clients. As part of a diversity and inclusion communication strategy, it has embarked on an initiative to raise awareness of religion and belief in the workplace, including the launch of a series of fact sheets about religious festivals such as Ramadan and Easter.
National Grid, too, has been praised for its work with a group called the Islam@Work network, with which it gave a number of presentations aimed at raising awareness and understanding of Islam among its staff. The move was such a success that copies of the presentation have been requested by other companies and by the UK Government Security Service for use in their own programmes.
Neither Sodexo nor National Grid can guarantee they won’t encounter BA-style difficulties in the future. But if they do, then at least they may have an enhanced opportunity to prevent things escalating into a full-blown legal or reputational crisis.
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