Education & Workforce Development and Workplace Issues and Diversity

Mixing religion, business leads to risks, rewards

December 11, 2006

Some managers launch business meetings with a formal call to order. Others open with a joke. LQ Performance Strategies Inc. CEO Mike Lantz usually begins with a prayer.

"In my opinion, the Bible is the greatest business book that was ever written," Lantz said. "There's a lot of applications in the workplace."

Navigating the intersection between creed and commerce can be tricky. Fearing lawsuits, many companies prefer to avoid it whenever possible. But others unabashedly intertwine religion and business.

Just before the November election, Republic Airways CEO Bryan Bedford thrust the issue into the spotlight, sending a letter to his 3,500 employees asking them to "prayerfully consider" candidates' positions on abortion. And for many executives, the December holidays annually crystallize the quandary over what types of religious expression are appropriate on the job.

Is it an innocuous pleasantry to mail company greeting cards reading, "Merry Christmas," and to voice the sentiment at the sales counter? Or does it create a hostile environment for folks who don't share the Christian faith perspective?

Tom Hirschauer, president of the Indianapolis office of the public relations firm Publicis, wrestled with the question. Ultimately, he decided to send his clients cards reading, "Happy Holidays."

"But what's wrong with, 'Merry Christmas?'" he asked. "Maybe we kind of forgot what the basic part of the season was about and tried to be too politically correct."

Other executives are more comfortable with making religion an overt part of their corporate culture, a framework for every decision.

Lantz, whose Indianapolis-based firm provides corporate training, said he regularly leads his 15 employees in a Bible study group and prays before making speeches or demonstrations. He said he wants to thank his maker for all LQ's blessings.

Whether the issue is prayers at work or the simple gesture of saying, "Merry Christmas," to customers, legal experts advise executives to tread carefully. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 explicitly prohibits religious discrimination by employers.

Last year, the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission investigated 2,340 charges of religious discrimination in companies around the country, leading to fines and settlements worth $6.1 million.

"Every employer has to be aware that employees are entitled to work in an environment free from harassing conditions, whether based on race, sex or religion," said Laurie Young, regional attorney for the EEOC's Indianapolis office.

"It isn't what the employer selectively believes his mission to be. It's whether you're obeying the requirements of the law."

Several disputes over religious practices have cropped up at Indianapolis-area companies in recent years.

In 2002, six former employees of Avon-based Preferred Home Health Care and a rejected job applicant received $270,000 in punitive damages after suing the company for religious discrimination. They alleged they were harassed because they didn't share the owner's fundamentalist views.

In 2000, Bloomington-based Otis Elevator Co. fired Minnie Thomas after she refused to wear pants while working on an assembly line. She'd argued that her religious beliefs required she wear a dress. Thomas returned to work after an arbitrator sided with her.

Faith in the workplace

The religious convictions of business owners and executives have nothing to do with their ability to provide goods and services, said Marcia Goldstone, executive director of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council.

"In America, you go out, at least ideally, and you make a buggy whip, a house or a car seat. You do it better than your competitors at a reasonable price," she said. "You stand by the product, and that's why people buy from you. The religious affiliation or beliefs of the provider should be irrelevant."

To help executives answer questions about faith and business, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce recently published "Religion in the Workplace," a guide for businesses.

Co-author Brian McDermott, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins, said a manager's religious expression can have a chilling effect on employees with other beliefs.

"Drawing a line is very difficult for employers, HR managers and the counselors who give them advice," he said. "However, there are times where one person's beliefs may be different from somebody else's. It becomes an issue not only for the employee, but for those in the workplace with different views."

Even the most overtly religious executives recognize that's a common perspective.

Despite his open demonstrations of faith at the office, Lantz said few of LQ Performance Strategies' customers are aware his firm is guided by "biblical principles." Its clients include global giants like Abbott Labs and Mercedes.

Lantz said he doesn't "Bible beat" clients. And he said employees can decline to participate in his prayers or Bible study.

Even so, Lantz said he's certain LQ Performance Strategies is a gift from God--he's only a steward. When the company unexpectedly landed a $75,000 contract recently, Lantz said he knew it was more than a windfall. For him, it was an example of divine providence.

"The only thing I can think of to explain how that happened is God's blessing," Lantz said. "God's hand is in it."

Other companies trumpet their religious leanings, and even use them as a sales tool.

Indianapolis-based Verus Health, a third-party administrator of medical and dental insurance, provides only coverage that strictly adheres to the Catholic catechism. That means the 10-employee firm won't provide coverage for procedures Catholics consider morally objectionable, such as abortion or sterilization.

Verus Health has an advisory board of priests, physicians and ethicists who help CEO Tracy Williams weigh the spiritual implications of its policies. He markets primarily to Catholic organizations, but also has private employers among his clients.

"We just occupy a niche, but it's an important niche," Williams said. "It's consistent with my values. That's what makes it easy to do."

Resolving religious dilemmas

Many executives say religious convictions help them navigate the maze of ethical quandaries they face on the job.

Networking with others who share their beliefs helps, too. Executives from about 90 Indianapolis companies turn to Truth@Work, a local forum for Christian business owners.

Founded seven years ago by Ray Hilbert, a former regional director of the conservative Christian men's movement Promise Keepers, the Indianapolis-based organization has branches in Fort Wayne and Cincinnati and is expanding into Milwaukee and Pensacola, Fla.

Hilbert said members regularly wrestle with questions such as whether to post Biblical quotations on their company Web sites, invoices or business cards; whether debt is morally objectionable; or what to do if that underperforming employee has a spouse in cancer treatment.

"As someone trying to have compassion as a Christian, but also have good stewardship as a business owner, what would you do?" Hilbert asked.

Truth@Workalso provides networking opportunities for some members to sell their products or services, Hilbert said.

"It is absolutely a huge byproduct of what we do," he said. "Anytime human beings with common points of interest build a relationship, it's inevitable they ultimately work together."

Truth@Work member Jeff Laskowski, CEO of Indianapolis-based sawmill manufacturer Wood-Mizer Products Inc., said religion in the workplace isn't about prayer groups or Bibles on desks. It's a mind-set of honesty, integrity and charity.

That's why his 600-employee company tithes 10 percent of its profit every year. And that's why Wood-Mizer sells its sawmills to certain not-for-profits at prices under the cost of their production.

"It isn't all just sitting by a campfire or an office desk singing 'Kumbaya'. It's the old saying, 'Put your money where your mouth is,'" he said. "Believe me, as a CEO, I could use that money. There isn't a year that goes by that I wouldn't like to have that 10 percent of our profit back."

Laskowski said his goal is for Wood-Mizer to be a successful company based on Christian principles.

In practice, that means he frowns on employees who curse, cheat or cut corners. Laskowski's religion also influenced his decision to establish an employee stock option plan, which gave his workers 54-percent ownership of Wood-Mizer.

"At the end of the day, it's not only a good way to treat other human beings, it's flat-out good business," Laskowski said.

The 'Merry Christmas' debate

For even the most secular managers, the approach of Christmas raises complicated questions. What decorations, cards, parties or slogans are appropriate? And how can a company balance Christian employees' yuletide cheer with the beliefs of Hindus, Muslims or Jews?

It's awkward territory. But Publicis' Hirschauer wonders whether businesses have become too cautious about faith, sending stacks of cards reading, "Season's Greetings," on the off chance a more overtly religious message might offend someone.

"If we say, 'Merry Christmas,' are we being insensitive to people of other faiths?" he asked.

"As our society becomes much more diverse, I suppose that's a fair question. But from a business standpoint, in retail, I think it's gotten way too politically correct. For many people, it is the Christmas season, and you shouldn't be impugned for saying so."

However business owners decide to handle prickly religious issues, they shouldn't just wing it, said McDermott, the Ogletree Deakins attorney. He said companies need to know the law and set policies consistent with it.

Doing so, he said, will help companies avoid most conflicts. And if they do arise, written guidelines will make them easier to resolve.

For example, the policies might explain how to redistribute work shifts if an employee wants to take a day off in observance of a religious holiday; or what's appropriate if a worker wants to wear certain religious apparel on the job.

"Recognize that the issue of religion and the workplace clearly intersects on a regular basis," McDermott said. "If the employer is sensitive about being employee-friendly, they'll be much better off in the end."

Source: XMLAr00102.xml
ADVERTISEMENT

Recent Articles by Peter Schnitzler

Comments powered by Disqus