While individual members of a given workplace may subscribe to distinct religions, they can all share the belief in talking openly with coworkers and employers about their unique faith practices. On Jan. 18, four panelists with extensive experience in the legal and cultural aspects of diversity met at Fordham Law School to offer advice about in-office religious dialogue during an event entitled “Legal Perspectives on the Rewards and Challenges of Religion in the Workplace,” hosted by the Institute on Religion, Law & Lawyer’s Work.
Stephen Sloan, a senior principal in Accenture’s Analytics practice, discussed the various successes of his company’s NY Metro Interfaith Employee Resource Group (ERG), which fosters healthy communication among members of different religions. The program has found widespread success among the company’s members. Among respondents, 85% cited the ERG as important to their Accenture experience, and 87% reported that they feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work.
“The amount of support that we get and the amount of interest and participation show how valuable it is to the company,” said Sloan of the program, which includes initiatives such as accessibility to clergymen, dietary lists, and wellness rooms for prayer.
Sloan, part of a Jewish family, noted how his father had experienced religious discrimination. Holding an English advanced degree, his father attempted to secure a professorial job in 1940s Chicago. After repeated rejection, he changed his surname from “Solomon” to “Sloan.” Shortly thereafter—and not coincidentally—he landed a position.
Sloan applauded society’s movement toward interfaith tolerance. “There is general forward progress,” he said, promoting programs like his company’s interfaith ERG in order to continue that progress.
Katrina L. Baker, special counsel of Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP, encouraged such ethical development by reminding audience members of various legal protections against discrimination and retaliation.
“Everybody is thinking about how they’re treated at work,” said Baker, citing various reasons for workplace discrimination. “If your lens is your religion it’s human nature to focus on that issue and try to see if maybe you’re being treated differently because of that.”
According to Baker, communication is key to sustaining amenable workplace relations. Managers should seek religious dialogue with their employees in order to secure rightful accommodations for them and to ward off any discrimination, whether explicit or implicit.
“We just need to talk to people,” said Baker.
Following Sloan’s and Baker’s presentations, audience members engaged in mock-workplace conversations. Simulating roles as employees and supervisors, participants discussed religion-based concerns, including requests for time off for holy-day observances and for workplace accommodations for prayer.
The exercise was led by Endy Moraes, fellow at the Institute on Religion, Law & Lawyer’s Work, and by Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard, Meyer Struckmann Professor of Jewish Law at the Humboldt Faculty of Law in Berlin and Fordham Law scholar-in-residence at the Institute on Religion, Law & Lawyer’s Work.
Audience members broached many salient points, including the challenges of providing food for employees with expensive dietary restrictions. One woman noted how discrimination can occur among members of the same religion who observe their faith to different degrees.
Moraes and Blanchard reiterated the importance of communication.
“Often our fear of inadvertently offending someone can become a barrier to asking the important questions,” said Moraes. “However, it is crucial to approach such conversations with openness, asking respectfully.”
“The key to solving most problems is to be able to invite and have conversations,” said Blanchard. “As long as you’re patient, it’ll go somewhere.”
Photos by Lindsey Pelucacci.