We haven’t seen much room for religion in the workplace, until now.
Things are changing as the number of workplace religious groups surges—and multicultural employees are shouting hallelujah.
Ramona Moore Big Eagle lives her life by a biblical credo: “In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct thy paths.” These “paths” include both her personal and professional lives. In her two years in sales at Pitney Bowes in Charlotte, NC, Ramona, who is Native American, was known to utter a joyful “praise God” when colleagues shared news of their promotions. Today, God’s words inform her work as a motivational speaker who runs her own company, Dare to Soar Enterprises, in Charlotte. “God guides my way always, even at work,” says Ramona, 53. “My faith allows me to exude a confidence that no one can take away from me, and I think that’s why I’ve been so successful.”
Religion has historically been seen as a private matter with little place in corporate America. But within the past two decades, a visible workplace faith shift has occurred as companies embrace religious diversity in answer to a growing global economy and to employees asking for their beliefs to be equally represented, according to Os Hillman, director of the International Coalition of Workplace Ministries, based in Cumming, GA. More and more, people like Ramona are bringing their spirituality to work—and more and more, firms are accommodating employees’ need to pray, wear symbols of their faith or perhaps shout hallelujah if the spirit moves them. Nearly 90 percent of Americans consider themselves religious, and for most, spirituality isn’t something that can be shed like an article of clothing during the workweek. “This is a way of life,” says Nurah Amat’ullah, an archival librarian at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. “I don’t stop being Muslim when I walk in the door to work.”
Many religious tenets—acting with integrity, treating others with respect—offer a perfect blueprint for workplace conduct, experts say. “Spirituality gives people a sense of purpose,” says David Miller, PhD, executive director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and author of God at Work. “It’s an ethical compass and a part of their well-being.”
Bring It On—But How Much?
For many women of color, spirituality at work not only motivates them but also helps them deal with racism, sexism and other stresses. “You definitely encounter adversity as a woman of color in corporate America,” says Belinda Matingou, 46, a consultant for Dell in Austin, TX. “My faith is a source of strength, an assurance that despite the difficulties, things will work out in the end.”
Ramona says her faith helped her endure what she felt was both gender and racial discrimination when she worked as a sales associate at a radio station in Charlotte. In 1981, she returned from maternity leave to find that the $30,000-a-year accounts she had built up from nothing had been given to a colleague, leaving her to start from scratch. “My manager told me that the man he’d given my accounts to a man who had a family to feed, while I didn’t have to provide for my children as I had a husband. My faith was the one thing that allowed me to be civil. Every day, I reminded myself that there’s no situation that God and I can’t handle.”
Though religion can ease the sting of discrimination, it can also pose challenges for women who dress in certain ways or pray during the workday. One Muslim woman was fired for wearing a hijab (headscarf) at work. She is currently taking legal action against her former employer (and wishes to remain anonymous during the suit).
While Sabrina N’Diaye, 41, a Muslim mother of two, has not faced outright discrimination, she is conflicted about whether to cover her head during her work in sales and marketing for the Marworth treatment center in Waverly, PA. Although she routinely wore her hijab as an off-ramped at-home mom, she chose not to wear it when she returned to work in 2003 because she didn’t want to stand out and be instantly judged. “I work in sales and have to go out and meet clients, and I didn’t want my religion to be the first thing people saw,” says Sabrina.
Today, she wears her hijab 70 percent of the time, but only with clients and colleagues who already know her.
The Value of Spirituality
Religion on the job can certainly invite prejudice, but Dr. Miller says that more often than not, “faith can play a con-structive role in quiet ways.” Exposure to different religions can foster understanding among coworkers, and giving people the space to meditate or pray can help defuse office tensions.
When Sabrina was once verbally assaulted by a colleague, prayer enabled her to stop the situation from escalating. “Instinctively, I wanted to retaliate, but I looked at my watch and realized that it was time to pray,” Sabrina says. She went to her office, laid out her rug and did so. “When I was finished, I was able to calmly explain to my coworker that what she had done was unacceptable. My reaction would have been much different if I hadn’t taken that time to pray.”
Many large corporations, including the Coca-Cola Company, Procter & Gamble and Microsoft, have recognized the value of faith in the workplace, instituting support groups, floating holidays and other work/life offerings that affirm workers’ spirituality. These not only help employees work together, they also encourage them to be their personal best.
“In the past, companies might have said that religion and spirituality don’t belong in the office; today, they’re trying to treat people holistically,” says Dr. Miller. The progress is evident in the numbers, says Hillman: Though only about 50 workplace religious groups existed in the early 1990s, today that number has burgeoned to more than 900.
One for All and All for One
An exemplary company-sponsored group has been meeting at Ford Motor Company since 2000. The Ford Interfaith Network (FIN) boasts members, among them Buddhists, Catholics, Hindus and Jews, from eight different religions. “Several informal religious groups had requested corporate sponsorship, and we initially said no,” says Allison Trawick, manager of corporate diversity and work/life at Ford. “But then we said we would agree to a group that included all religions and promoted tolerance and understanding.”
FIN members meet every two weeks or so, hold religious events and put out a monthly inspirational newsletter. “FIN is very careful to make sure its messages go out only to people who want them,” says Trawick, “and we’ve received positive feedback from many employees about the group’s work.” In addition to being a bonus for spiritual employees, FIN has helped improve Ford’s bottom line, Trawick says. “People outside the company who have heard about the group have said they’re more likely to buy a Ford because of it. And our employees are more productive and less stressed because they’re able to bring their whole selves to work.”
Impressed by the way Ford actively promoted religion in the workplace, Madhvi Doshi, 51, applied for a job as an IT strategic planner at headquarters in Dearborn, MI, six years ago. “I thought, If this is important to Ford, then their values are aligned with what is important to me,” says Madhvi, who is Hindu. “It showed me that the leadership at Ford cared about diversity and wanted to create an inclusive culture, and religion wasn’t just an afterthought.”
FIN also posts an online faith calendar, which lists major religious holidays so managers can check it before they schedule meetings. Even more impressive, Ford offers designated meditation rooms, which Madhvi and her colleagues use to get through stressful days. “We have guided group meditations for anyone who wants to come,” she says. “Even though the sessions are just fifteen minutes long, the group’s energy makes you feel so invigorated. It’s such a powerful force.” She has found that although she once saw only differences between herself and her FIN colleagues, she now sees that they are all very much alike.
“We share the same aspirations,” says Madhvi. “In acknowledging our spiritual sides, we’re better able to work together. We strive to live with integrity as we consider our individual roles as part of a larger whole.”
By Lisa Armstrong