Spirituality and religion at work aims for more diversity and voice in business

During and after the pandemic and with continuing disaffiliation from religious institutions, many people have found spirituality at their workplaces, as a growing number of corporations are making room for the religious needs of their employees. Under “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) policies at many leading companies, new faith groups based around spiritual practices, interfaith cooperation, and social service have found a welcome home in the world’s largest corporations, according to speakers at the Dare to Overcome conference organized by the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation. The conference, held in Washington, DC, in late May and attended by RW, brought together about 250 business and ministry leaders from companies including Dell, Google, Intel, American Airlines, Ford, and PayPal. Brian Grim, the foundation’s founder and director, said that “more companies are opting in” to faith-based friendliness and freedom—including more from Europe—allowing their employees to “bring their whole self to the workplace.”

At a special event to mark the most faith-friendly companies, the foundation presented its Religious Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (REDI) Index that evaluates companies in 10 categories, including religious accommodations, spiritual care offerings, and belief-based employee resource groups (ERGs). Intel was ranked as the most faith-friendly Fortune 500 company for 2022, with American Airlines and Equinix following close behind, according to the survey. This year, based on publicly available information, the index also included companies that did not take the survey. This separate ranking found that 219 companies (44 percent) referred to religion on the diversity page of their website, up from 202 last year, and that 43 companies (8.6 percent) publicly reported having faith-based ERGs, up from 37 last year. Among the top 25 companies assessed in the REDI Index, 96 percent addressed religion in their diversity training and had procedures for reporting religious discrimination. Eighty percent provided chaplains or other forms of spiritual care, and 72 percent matched employee donations to religious charities.

Source: Living by Design Ministries.

The ERGs in these and other companies can dwarf most megachurches in size, even as they are more limited in purpose; Google, for example, has 10,000 members worldwide in its Inter Belief Network, which includes Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, interfaith, Jewish, and Hindu groups. The global reach of these companies also dovetails with Grim’s goal of promoting religious freedom abroad. The mantra of “bringing one’s whole self to the workplace” was repeated by speakers and participants throughout the conference, and it blended with the DEI initiatives so prevalent in American organizational life, although in a different key. “What we are doing is putting the ‘E’ in DEI—that changes things. Having equity reaches out to those of all faiths and is inclusive without marginalizing anyone,” said Fr. Greg McBrades, a flight dispatcher and chaplain at American Airlines, in an interview. He added that faith groups in companies may appeal to those who are not active in congregations, since employees “spend over 100,000 hours of their time at their jobs” and it is natural that they would seek spirituality there. Ismael Rivera, a pastor and employee of Equinix, said that “It’s at work where I’m exposed to those of other faiths. Knowing fellow employees’ religions adds a new dimension to who they are.” Asked whether the DEI approach, which has been criticized for bringing identity politics into the workplace and education, allows for free expression of religion, Rivera said that he has “never felt that I was made to accept views I disagree with. It’s really about accepting and respecting each other as people.”

Several conference participants related how ERGs in the workplace played an important role in meeting people’s needs during the pandemic. Tim Schabel, a human resources contractor for the metal-coating company AZZ, said that employee contact with chaplains increased threefold during the pandemic and that rates of anxiety had decreased as a result of such engagement. He said that the company’s use of the organization, Marketplace Chaplain, had resulted in enhanced employee health and greater productivity and introduced a third-party and confidential source that provided a listening ear to workers’ concerns. Aside from utilitarian purposes, Joshua Moore, a Chicago-based consultant, thought that faith in the workplace provided a needed sense of community and belonging to workers, especially after the isolation of the pandemic, and also gave them the integrity that comes from knowing they can “bring their whole self to work.”

Throughout the conference, speakers and participants spoke of bringing ERGs to the “next level.” This included reaching younger generations with the faith-in-the-workplace message and encouraging business school students to engage with the issue. ERGs are also becoming more involved in social service activities, such as fighting against child trafficking. The expanded role for ERGs was also evident in a well-attended session that focused on how faith in the workplace relates to the new challenges posed by artificial intelligence (AI). The use of AI in the workplace, especially in hiring practices, will likely introduce bias and may be used to discriminate against those of different religions, said Eugene Rogers of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Thomas Osborne, a chief operating officer with Vettd, a Seattle-based staffing consulting company using AI, agreed that “bias will be amplified” with AI systems and that such technologies scrape so much data from people online that privacy will be difficult to maintain. Yet because many aspects of religious practice have been found to be pro-social and healthy, religion could actually be a desired “data point” in AI-assisted job-candidate searches, he said. Noting that greed and the bottom line will only be maximized by the use of AI in business, Osborne called on people of faith to “have a role in running the algorithms; don’t let Microsoft run them, because they will be shaped by [its] values.”