Working for workplace religious diversity, equity & inclusion


How Corporate America is Becoming Faith-Friendly

Brian Grim, Ph.D., President and Founder, Religious Freedom & Business Foundation

I recently contributed a piece for the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos titled “Diversity is top of the corporate agenda. Why doesn’t that include faith?” In it, I summarized our data showing that the majority of Fortune 100 companies fail to mention faith or religion as part of diversity efforts.

Indeed, faith and core beliefs are taboo topics in many workplaces. But that is changing. In the wake of the pioneering religious diversity work of companies like American Airlines, American Express, Texas Instruments, Intel, Target and Tyson Foods, more leading companies are realizing that people’s diverse personal faiths and beliefs give meaning and purpose to their work. They are also realizing that including religion as part of their other diversity and inclusion efforts not only strengthens overall inclusion, but it is also good for the bottom line.

Increasingly, workplace leaders are realizing that their most powerfully impactful “products” are not limited to the products they make or the services they provide. They’re seeing that through their day-to-day operations, they can also export a culture of respect, compassion and freedom – a different kind of “product” that both enriches the entire world and increases brand warmth.

The Religious Freedom & Business Foundation’s Corporate Religious Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (REDI) Index spotlights a diverse spectrum of companies where people are encouraged to bring their whole selves to work — including their faith. It’s not just confined to the early pioneers. It is also happening in companies like Google, Apple, Salesforce, Accenture, PayPal, and Walmart where faith-oriented employee resource groups (ERGs) are proliferating.

Workplace chaplains are another visible symbol of this movement, not just in workplaces such as the military, hospitals, athletics, the US Senate, but also in Fortune 100 companies, with Tyson Foods leading the way.

What is at the root of this burgeoning movement?

The short answer is that businesses are recognizing that for many people, trying to separate their faith from them while at work is as difficult as expecting a person to separate themselves from their race or gender or age. Their faith is as baked into their personhood as these other characteristics, and for some people, even more so. As Julia Oltmanns of Zurich America puts it:

“Over the years, the companies I had worked for had recognized my identity as a woman, but my identity in my faith is more important to me than my gender. Once the organization recognized that importance and supported my expression of my faith at work, I felt encouraged to be an integrated, aligned, values-driven leader in the company, allowing me to reach my full potential.”

A few years ago, I was asked by the Vatican to offer insights on how freedom of religion and belief relates to their seminal document on faith and business, The Vocation of the Business Leader. If you’re familiar with the lingo, when Catholics “pray for vocations,” they are usually praying for young women and men to answer God’s call to become nuns or priests.

Is the Vatican putting businesswomen and businessmen in the same category as nuns and priests? No and yes.

No, the Vatican is not asking them to become celibate as nuns and most priests are called to be. Yes, the Vatican is asking them to see their business work as a calling from God, a vocation in Catholic lingo. The document affirms the sanctity of everyday work and says that creating goods and services that make life better for people honors God and contributes “greatly to the material and even the spiritual well-being of society.”

A main point of The Vocation of the Business Leader is that people must live a congruent life, one in which everything they do – at work, at home and at worship – aligns with the expectations of their faith. Of course, not all religions teach the same thing. But, bringing one’s full self to work – faith and all – matters not just to Catholics and other Christians, but to people of every faith, from Ahmadiyyas to Zorastrians and everything in between, including Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Jewish people, Muslims, Sikhs, and so on.

The Vocation of the Business Leader observes that the greatest obstacle to fulfilling this spiritual calling is not corruption, the absence of rule of law, greed, or poor stewardship of resources. Rather, the key barrier to this calling is the all-too-common practice of leading an incongruent, divided life, where faith is checked at the workplace door.

Indeed, for people of faith (regardless of religion), such a divided life is inauthentic. It requires that they essentially go “under cover” with their faith, as if their core identity were something shameful. This constraint saps energy, adversely impacts job satisfaction, and degrades performance. In fact, for many people of various faiths, perceived restrictions on religious expression at work cause just as much damage as denying the importance of other facets of one’s identity that are protected as is religion by employment nondiscrimination law in the US: race, color, national origin, age, disability and genetic information, and sex (including pregnancy, and more recently sexual orientation and gender identity). In a nutshell, that’s why religious inclusion in the workplace is an imperative.

At the same time, the business case for workplace religious equity, diversity and inclusion is overwhelming. As companies globalize, they’ll need employees who can relate to the daily experience of increasingly diverse customers. For billions of potential customers, including in the world’s fastest-growing economies, religious belief and practice are a part of daily life. Having employees who understand the ways that faith and belief are manifest in private and public life will help companies avoid costly missteps and develop products and services better tailored to customer needs, which is an essential part of being competitive.

And it’s not “just” about the workplace. What’s going on in these arenas strengthens the fabric of civility throughout the world.

It is important to emphasize that the faith and business is NOT just about allowing people to join clubs with others who believe what they believe and making them feel more appreciated (though that’s helpful in its own right). It’s also about building much-needed bridges across cultures. Taken together, the principles expounded in this book — directly and indirectly — show how a concerted, strategic focus on workplace religious freedom for all can help strengthen cultures of trust, collaboration and warmth. These are essential ingredients for teambuilding and business success in the new era that has been indelibly changed by the coronavirus pandemic.

In today’s culturally divided America, this might seem like a fairy tale, but it’s not. Simply put, those in corporate America for whom faith and belief matter have found that collectively protecting and celebrating their freedom for all to be authentic at work unifies rather than divides. Religious freedom for all is the recipe for peace, as research clearly shows.The single greatest reason companies point to for not having yet joined this movement is that they fear opening the door for religion at work will open instead a pandora’s box of conflict, especially when religion coupled with politics and culture wars. However, in our experience in working with scores of companies, being free to be your “authentic religious self” decreases conflict while increasing trust, teamwork and morale. It also makes companies better able to relate to a national marketplace that is becoming more religiously diverse and a global marketplace that is also becoming more religious.

During the pandemic lockdown, we invited people from across corporate America to share their stories of “why” being able to bring their faith to work matters. I’ll conclude by summarizing some of the principles that come from their stories, which will be the subject of a forthcoming book tentatively titles, “THE FAITH AND BUSINESS MOVEMENT: 10 Principles Defining Its Success in Corporate America.”

First, at the organizational level, all the successful faith and business initiatives in corporate America have the purpose of contributing to the success of the business. As articulated by Ellen Barker SVP at Texas Instruments, their faith ERGs have the same purposes as the company’s other diversity initiatives:
(1) to promote a collaborative and respectful culture,
(2) to recruit and cultivate talent,
(3) to stimulate innovation and engagement, and
(4) to give back to their communities, “believing that stronger companies create stronger communities and stronger communities build stronger companies.”

Second, in addition to fulfilling a real-world business need, corporate America’s faith and business movement works because it is a mosaic not a melting pot. A melting pot approach expects all the different faiths and beliefs to meld together, replacing diversity with an amalgamation that no one recognizes. A mosaic approach celebrates and educates about the distinctiveness of each, and that’s at the core of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
At the same time the faith and business movement also works because it is not about dogma and politics, but about service and celebration. Arguably, this movement is a model for overcoming the polarization that has beset American society.

Third, including faith enhances overall diversity. One example, among many, comes from the leader of the Christian Employee Group at Intel, who not only helped form an interfaith association among the other faith and belief groups – including the agnostic and atheist group – but he also spearheaded the annual Martin Luther King Jr. event as a white evangelical. Bridges of this sort are sorely needed. As another example, Faithforce had an event called Multiple Closets, where people of faith who were also members of the LGBTQ community shared about their experiences of “coming out” of both closets.

Fourth, the faith-and-business movement takes more than just the form of Employee Resource Groups. For example, it includes chaplains in hundreds of companies across the country. are accustomed to seeing chaplains as a regular feature of institutions such as hospitals, prisons, police departments, the military, Congress, and even sports teams, but in business? Yes, indeed. Not only do airports have chaplains, so do airlines – American Airlines’ chief flight controller is also priest, workplace chaplain and the head of their Christian Employee Business Resource Group. Also among the Fortune 100, Tyson Foods has the most well-developed chaplaincy program. The objective of the Tyson Foods Chaplain Services program is to live out their culture as a faith-friendly and inclusive company.

Fifth, being religiously inclusive adds ethical resources. People who identify with a faith are not necessarily more ethical or more virtuous than those who do not embrace faith. There are plenty of religious people who don’t carry their religion into the workplaces. But personal faith itself often involves the aspiration of being guided by clear ethical compass that focuses on faith, hope, love and humility. But for some people, faith permeates their lives. It changes what they do in business and how they do it. That is important to the bottom line because, while people of faith do not have a corner on the market on ethics, they have belief systems that call them to high standards, which is a boon within any business because a healthy, ethical corporate culture must rest on more than written codes and compliance mechanisms. What’s needed is a connection with employees’ hearts – the core values and beliefs that govern what they do when nobody’s looking.

And finally, this will not go away. Religion is one of the few social institutions that accompanies people from cradle to grave. It marks rites of passage in youth, such as baptisms and bar/bat mitzvahs, and it is present in last rites and (in most religions) the hope of resurrection – that all is not done at death.

In their faith, people are much more complex than typical management training recognizes.

Human souls (however you understand that) are at work every day, impacted by the corporate and social cultures we operate in. We all bring that part of us to work, and these cultures around us have the power to enrich or impoverish our souls. Accenture’s tagline is “Creating the most truly human company in the digital age.” Ellyn Shook, Chief Leadership and Human Resources Officers at Accenture, wrote a compelling article on October 28, 2018, titled “Stop wondering is Faith is a workplace issue. It is.” The date is significant. It is the day after the Tree of Life synagogue mass shooting in Pittsburg that claimed the life of eleven people and wounded six others including four police officers during Shabbat morning services. It was the deadliest attack on America’s Jewish community in history.

Mass killings like this one affect not only friends and family of those killed or hurt, but entire religious communities who feel vulnerable and wonder if their place of worship is next, if they are next. Rather than retreat from the horror, Ellyn reached out to colleagues who could help find the words to discuss a way forward together. The faith ERGs at Accenture were there to take the lead and help the company respond in ways that brought both healing and a knowledge that the company stood against religious intolerance and for religious inclusion in the workplace and in society.

How faith and business works in such times is wonderfully captured in a tweet by Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff in the response to the Easter Sunday Bombings of churches across Sri Lanka:

“I learned today that a member of our Ohana lost a family member in #SriLanka. Thank you to our Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, & Hindu Ohana who held a vigil for our whole Christian Ohana. May times of tragedy remind us all that light shines in the darkness (John 1:5) #Faithforce”

And for those not familiar with John 1:5, It is a reference to Jesus’s life being the “light of all people:” “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

As companies navigate a constantly changing world, the faiths and beliefs of their employees provide added resources to not only deal with uncertainty and tragedy, but also be wells of innovation, values and resilience.

To be competitive in today’s and tomorrow’s marketplaces, companies need to set this force for good free by including religion as a full-fledged part of their diversity, equity and inclusion commitments.

But how? That’s what we’re here to help with through training materials, conferences and discussions. Let’s keep the conversation going!