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Keeping Faith: Religion in the Family Business

By Craig Aronoff, Ph.D.


We've always viewed the strong values and cultures that family can bring to the companies they own as one of family business greatest competitive advantages. And many families see their religion as the basis of their values. As a matter of faith or stewardship, these families put service to God, their religious organizations and other people as central motivations related to their business and family lives. They sometimes purposely build God, religion, faith and service into family and business value statements, business decisions and activities.

However, religion at work can be a volatile mix. Even the most well-intentioned family business can find itself facing discrimination claims if one religious group is not treated the same as the next. As a percentage of discrimination complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), religion-based actions have increased by two-thirds in recent years.

Attorney Dudley Rochelle of the national law firm Littler Mendelson says Executives have to be careful not to send the message that if you don t follow a particular religion, you're really not a part of the company. You can't beat people over the head with your religious views. Rochelle advises even the most religious CEOs do not lead prayer groups or scripture sessions at work. With increasing diversity in the workplace, allowing or encouraging religious practices may require not only accommodation of various Christian denominations and Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and other faiths as well. Even atheists or groups that business owner/managers may consider dangerous cults would have the same rights of assembly and expression accorded others. Not surprisingly, rather than deal with such potential problems, many businesses insist on policies that clearly separate church and business.

Still, many business owners feel called to recognize God and religion in the workplace. The religious orientation is often justified as contributing to achievement of business goals like service, ethical dealings and creating a positive working environment. Some companies, such as Tyson Foods, are hiring part-time chaplains. Others are contracting with organizations like Marketplace Ministries and Corporate Chaplains of America which provide multi-denominational pastoral counseling to employees.

Tip Top Poultry in Marietta, Georgia with 1200 employees contracted with Marketplace Ministries last year. To me, it's impossible to separate the business person from the whole person, explains Robin Burruss, second-generation CEO. A deeply religious Christian, he says, Our people know we care about them. The spiritual aspect permeates everything we do. At the same time, we don't try to stick our religion down anyone's throat. If people want help, they know they can call on someone. Assistance from Marketplace Ministries is available in Spanish and English.

For many families, the benefits of encouraging religious practices in the workplace far outweigh the risks. Others believe that service to God, faith, prayer, tithing and ethical treatment of others result in blessings that support success. The accompanying table offers ten guidelines to help family businesses achieve the benefits of religion in the workplace while appropriately managing the risks.

Guidelines on Workplace Religion

  • Realize that the definition of religion under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act is very broad. It includes moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong, which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views. Atheism qualifies; agnosticism does not.
  • Emphasize that your business does not discriminate in hiring, promotion or benefits based upon religious belief.
  • Word corporate policies carefully to avoid making religious belief an implicit requirement for being part of the company.
  • Work to avoid creating a hostile environment for people of other faiths or no faith.
  • Train supervisors on how to avoid unlawful harassment when discussing beliefs with employees. Complaint procedures should be disseminated to everyone.
  • Develop a comprehensive antiharassment policy.
  • Make clear that attending religious studies or prayer groups is not mandatory and that absence will not affect advancement. It's preferable that top management not lead such sessions.
  • If prayer before meetings is routine, state that employees do not have to participate and my even come in late.
  • Know that e-mail and other communication between employees on supposedly personal religious matters may be considered business-related in any court proceedings, to prove a hostile attitude toward a nonbeliever.
  • Realize that what is done for one religious group must be done for others.

Source: Littler Mendelson, P.C. and the Atlanta Business Chronicle





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