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."
If the lawsuits aren't enough evidence, religion's presence on business's radar screen is obvious with the rising number of complaints to federal regulators. Since 1992, the number of religious discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has jumped nearly 40 percent. The federal EEOC received almost 2,000 complaints of religion-based discrimination last year.
Federal law under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from discrimination on the basis of religion and requires employers to accommodate an employee's religious belief, as long it doesn't cause an undue hardship. For example, an employer might give the day off for religious observation, but without pay. Companies are not legally required to make accommodation for prayer during the workday, but many do so to recruit and retain skilled workers.
Generally, an accommodation that would require more than minimal cost to the employer, considering its size and resources, is considered an undue hardship, said employment attorney Mark Cheskin, partner with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius in Miami.
But the bottom-line business implications of ignoring religious diversity can be more expensive than a potential lawsuit, say diversity experts. Recruitment, retention, productivity and customer service all can be adversely affected. "The U.S. is becoming more diverse and employers can utilize this diversity to reach business goals," said Helen Drinan, president of the Society of Human Resource Management. "Companies will need to encompass diversity in all aspects of their business. It's important to view religious accommodation not just as a way to avoid legal claims, but rather as an opportunity to increase retention and boost the cohesiveness and productivity of the work force."
In a 1999 study by the Tanenbaum Center, about 45 percent of respondents who said they had experienced religious bias, considered leaving their jobs. Nearly half said it negatively affected their performance. Meanwhile, an employee who feels included and valued will likely be productive and loyal to the company, said the study sponsors.
Indeed that seems to be the case for South Florida employees who feel free to express their religion at work. "This is important to me," said Wasserstrom, who started the weekly one-hour Jewish studies sessions three months ago with the blessing of senior partners at Hogan & Hartson in Miami. "When they were hiring me, I said this is a part of who I am."
Richard Biber, who has worked at American Express since 1988 and co-founded the Christian employees network there in 1995, said: "It means a lot to me that the company respects my background and lets me share my background with others." Professor Tapia at University of Miami says he has found tolerance and "people interested in learning about my religion," on the Coral Gables college campus, but he thinks that's not true for the rest of the estimated 100,000 Muslims living in South Florida, especially since Sept. 11.
Following the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, experts say employers should be mindful of backlash against Arab-Americans. They caution employers not to undertake any actions that discriminate against Muslims because of a current climate of fear, such as giving polygraphs, checking citizenship records or criminal backgrounds of only Muslim workers.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Washington-based Islamic advocacy group, published a booklet called An Employer's Guide to Islamic Religious Practices, to help employers devise and implement policies that can create a culturally sensitive working environment. "I am going to order the book to review it before my next diversity training session," Gatley said. "And managers with even one Muslim employees should do the same."