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Combining Religion and Business: The New Frontier

For decades, the reigning opinion on religion and business in America has been to keep them strictly separate. In recent years, however, a number of the country’s most successful companies have challenged this mentality. Seeing the benefit of a spiritually accommodated workforce, they are intentionally cultivating connections with religion and welcoming a diversity of faiths into the workplace.

At the Religious Freedom Center’s (RFC’s) “Business Success in a Religiously Diverse World” event, held on Feb. 13, a panel of experts from these unorthodox innovators came together with Brian Grim, the acclaimed religion and society scholar, to discuss the issue. Their insights highlighted the interconnectedness of the public and private spheres and the importance of understanding the proper roles and responsibilities of different elements of society.

Culture Shift

Conventional wisdom says that faith and work don’t mix. American culture tells us to leave our beliefs at home so that the office can remain a purely professional environment, and most follow this advice. Open religiosity only causes dogmatic debates that disrupt the workflow and prevent cultural tolerance, right? 

Maybe not. Times are changing, and some businesses are beginning to realize that bringing faith into the office can actually increase efficiency and cultivate stronger workplace community.

Accenture, one of the world’s leading financial consulting firms, is one of these businesses. Sumreen Ahmad is the company’s Global Change and Management Lead and is in charge of its interfaith program. At RFC, she said that what started as a grassroots initiative by lower-level employees to make space for one another’s religious practices has become a central part of Accenture’s philosophy. The idea is that diversity goes beyond ethnicity and race. Employees work best when they bring their whole selves to work, and this includes their religious beliefs. “You can’t cherry pick,” Ahmad explained.

To create a genuinely diverse workplace, Accenture celebrates a wide variety of religious holidays, holds cultural competency trainings and supports voluntary Faith Employee Resource Groups, which facilitate inter and intrafaith dialogue. The results? Workers feel safer to express their true identities, deeper workplace connections are formed and office leaders are more motivated to reach out to subordinates when they need emotional support. Employees often list the authentic community as a leading reason for why they continue to stay at the company.

Business benefits from religious accommodation, too. According to Ahmad, the connections formed through religious dialogue increase trust and social capital, which boost workplace efficiency. Moreover, integrating employees’ deepest motivations into their work makes them more responsible workers and better servant leaders.

Companies with Missions

Olivia Lang was also one of the panelists. As the director of workforce excellence at CVS Health, she emphasized her commitment to using her company’s medical expertise to help communities in need. CVS is a for-profit business, but this doesn’t mean it’s purely self-interested. Caring for others is one of the company’s core values, a part of its mission.

Lang realized that this mission couldn’t be fulfilled if religion and business were kept completely separate. CVS forms partnerships with religious institutions to integrate the two spheres. This is different from merely welcoming religion in the workplace, but can prove just as rewarding. “The church is the gateway to the [local] community,” Lang said. She explained that workers need to develop relationships with faith leaders to be effective, as she believes the talent, insight and motivation that come from interaction with the “sacred sector” are essential to success. 

Of course, CVS is not a religious institution, and it doesn’t intend to become one. To form a healthy partnership with a church, the church’s and the company’s goals must be aligned with each other. In Lang’s eyes, this isn’t so difficult to achieve, though. When you start with what the parties have in common and don’t focus on the differences, teamwork is a real possibility. She held up CVS’s new partnership with the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church, through which the two entities are working together to address workforce development, health and wellness, and caregiver support in CME communities, as an excellent example of this.

Right Roles and Responsibilities

All this to say, bringing faith into work can present challenges. Kent Johnson is no stranger to this. In his tenure as a lawyer at Texas Instruments (TI), which was one of the first major companies to embrace workplace diversity in general, he saw religious diversity policies produce fear and tension. Nevertheless, Johnson insisted at the event that the problems religion creates are greatly exaggerated and can often be avoided if the proper roles and responsibilities of different social spheres are respected.

This sentiment is firmly rooted in a public justice framework, which emphasizes the interconnectedness of the different elements of society—government, civil society, the family and private life—but also the importance of recognizing their boundaries.

Faith is deeply personal and often private in nature, but because most major religions command external practice as well as interior belief, it cannot be excluded from public life without negative consequences. Still, as Johnson pointed out, a company is primarily a place of work, not a place of worship. Dialogue and understanding should be encouraged, but only insofar as they maintain a free and efficient work community.

Johnson stated that the goal of religious diversity initiatives, therefore, should never be to change anyone’s opinions. Aggressive proselytizing can do more harm than good in the office, and if subordinates feel pressured by their supervisor to engage in certain religious activities, morale decreases and the atmosphere of safety dissolves, not to mention the serious legal issues that may arise. Religion and work can successfully mix only if they ultimately stay distinct.

This breaks down, however, when it comes to explicitly religious organizations. Public justice principles recognize that faith-based businesses and nonprofits ought to have the right to take employees’ faith into consideration when staffing. In fact, they would be unwise not to. The old saying “personnel is policy” really holds true for religious organizations, and if they are not careful about who they hire and put into leadership positions, they may not be able to effectively live out their faith-based missions with integrity.

The New Frontier

When the proper roles and responsibilities of religion and work are respected, however, great things can happen, even in areas where one might expect an impasse. TI was originally concerned that religious diversity policies would cause its LGBTQ population to experience discrimination, but through a series of monthly discussions with the LGBTQ group leader, Johnson was able to ensure mutual respect and protection for religious conservatives and LGBTQ employees. Johnson and the group leader also developed a strong personal friendship.

After implementing the policies, the benefits of a faith-friendly workplace became even more clear to TI. When faced with a serious product problem, for instance, the members of the company banded together and told all customers likely to be affected, despite the potential financial ramifications. Kent described that everyone went home that day feeling like they had made a difference, and he felt that religious motivations were crucial in helping them make the ethical decision.

Grim, who acted as the panel moderator, best summed up the essence of the religion-business dynamic when, referencing Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, he expressed the importance of having a “truly human” workplace. Yes, by bringing religion into the office, you may introduce new tensions and perhaps even new conflicts. But the benefits of allowing employees to incorporate their true selves into their work and corporate relationships far outweigh the costs.

The views expressed at “Business Success in a Religiously Diverse World” challenge the traditional American approach to religion and the workplace in a powerful way. Accenture, CVS Health and TI have all defied traditional norms by entering the new frontier of religious diversity, and according to Ahmad, Lang and Kent, the outcomes have been overwhelmingly positive. Perhaps other companies would do well to follow suit.

Collin Slowey is an intern with the Center for Public Justice and a political science student at Baylor University.

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