At American Express in Plantation, manager Richard Biber leads a meeting of the Christian employees network called Salt (from the Bible verse in Matthew, "be like the salt of the earth") as they plan speakers, holiday activities and a community food drive. Employees in the group are Catholic, Baptist, Methodist and born-again Christian. Diana Rodriguez, a sales representative for BellSouth Yellow Pages, prays every Monday lunch hour with co-workers in a group that she started three years ago in their West Palm Beach office. Throughout the week, they may share daily devotionals.
At the University of Miami, computer engineering professor Moiez Tapia kneels in prayer five times a day, in accordance with his Islamic faith.
But while religious diversity is embraced at those workplaces in South Florida, many companies are still grappling with the issue of religion in the workplace--especially in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Some fear a backlash against Arab-American and Muslim employees and an increase in discrimination lawsuits. "Employers walk a fine line between accommodating religious expressions and beliefs and avoiding harassment of others that could lead to a hostile work environment," said employment attorney Heather Gatley, a partner with Miami-based Steel Hector Davis.
Religion in the workplace was already moving to center stage as companies faced accommodating the needs of employees from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. But since Sept. 11, managing diversity in times of crisis has become more critical, say workplace experts. "This was an emerging issue that has now emerged," said Georgette Bennett, director of the New York-based Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, a non-sectarian organization formed after the death of Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, partly to prevent religious conflict in the workplace. "In the aftermath of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, we've had a large increase of bias incidents against Muslims. I believe in post-Sept. 11, anti-Semitism is also a concern in the workplace."
The Tanenbaum Center has worked with the 165,000-member Society for Human Resource Management to guide companies to a better understanding and respect for religious diversity. Since Sept. 11, it has stepped up directives and put out an alert to employers to carefully watch for signs of conflicts among employees and cases of discrimination and harassment.
Many companies believe that the only way to avoid religious harassment or discrimination lawsuits is to eliminate all religious expression from the workplace, which may include banning religious symbols at desks or on computer screen savers. "Companies fear clashes among groups and so they have a blanket prohibition," said employment lawyer Frank Henry, a partner at Baker & McKenzie. "But this is a different world than five weeks ago."
Henry thinks the intent to try to keep religion out of the workplace is good, but he and others see heightened sensitivity since Sept. 11. But he sees more employees turning to their faith, and companies increasingly could be asked to accommodate their varied needs.
Religious diversity is growing in the U.S. workplace. Nearly 40 percent of all companies surveyed in June by the Society for Human Resource Management said they have more religions represented in their work forces compared with five years ago. Overall, religious diversity in the United States is increasing. There are more than 1,500 distinct religious denominations and faith groups in the United States. This includes 900 Christian, 100 Hindu and 75 Buddhist denominations.
With so many different religious and cultural backgrounds, it is almost inevitable that there will be challenges in creating policies for religion in the workplace. One's religion may dictate that the observer begin every sentence, "in the name of Jesus Christ," but some co-workers may find that intimidating and offensive. Proselytizing is protected expression, but being called a "sinner" and having one's personal life called into question can be harassment, said attorney Gatley.
In other words, an employer can't prohibit a worker from proselytizing in the lunchroom, but if the action offends other workers, then the offended employee could sue the employer if no corrective action was taken. "Employers are between a rock and a hard place," said Gatley. "These issues find their ways into the courts."