Protecting religion in the workplace? What employees think.

Author:Borstorff, Patricia
 
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INTRODUCTION

There are approximately 310 million people in the United States (www.census.gov, Nov. 2009). According to a national Gallup Poll, 95 percent of the national population says that they believe in God or a universal spirit, and 90 percent say that religion is important (Ball & Haque, 2003; Henle & Hogler, 2004). For most individuals, because work dominates such a large part of one's life, it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate one's religious beliefs from the workplace. Over the last twenty years, it has become common practice to express one's personal views about religious and spiritual topics and to seek religious accommodation in the workplace (Morgan, 2004). This increased desire to express one's self religiously has caused some complicated issues for managers today. Consequently religious diversity is emerging as a significant issue. Because it is driven by demographic trends, religion looms large as a future diversity issue. The laws governing religious diversity are unclear, making it difficult for employers and employees to know where the boundaries are. It is imperative that focus is given to how businesses deal with religious accommodation and the conflict that arises when a compromise cannot be found.

Data compiled by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) indicates the religious discrimination claims against employers have increased from 1,811 in Fiscal Year 1999 to 3,386 in Fiscal Year 2009 with monetary awards rising from $3.1 million to $7.6 million. The monetary rewards did not include monetary benefits obtained through litigation. In 1999, 2,188 were resolved (some cases forwarded from previous year) while in 2009, 2,958 cases were resolved (www.eeoc.gov/stats/religion).

"The latest data tell us that, as the first decade of the 21st century comes to a close, the Commission's work is far from finished," said EEOC Acting Chairman Stuart J. Ishimaru. "Equal employment opportunity remains elusive for far too many workers and the Commission will continue to fight for their rights. Employers must step up their efforts to foster discrimination-free and inclusive workplaces, or risk enforcement and litigation by the EEOC". (www.eeoc.gov)

IMMIGRANT INFLUX

The increase of immigrants into the U.S has exacerbated the problems with religion accommodation. More than 1,800 immigrants enter the country daily (Pace & Padgham, 2000). The Center for Immigration Studies estimates that the number of immigrants from the Middle East has grown eight times from 1970 to 2001 and is expected to double again by 2010. Almost 75% of these immigrants were of the Muslim faith with Islam being the fastest growing religion in the United States. The American Religious Identification Survey found that the number of people in the United States that claimed to be Christian fell from 86% in 1990 to 77% in 2001. Because most companies structure their holidays around the Judeo-Christian observances, the shift to other religious characterizations has caused an increase in the amount of requests for time off to observe alternative religious holidays (Estreicher & Gray, 2006).

The majority of immigrants have been from non-European countries. From 1994 to 1996, the number of immigrants from traditionally Christian countries decreased 8%, while the number of immigrants from traditionally non-Christian countries, such as Asia and Africa, increased 13% ("Religious Diversity: A Handle", 2000). The inflow of immigrants has augmented the number of religious denominations represented in the U.S. workplace. Currently there are approximately 1,500 primary religions in the United States consisting of Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist denominations (Atkinson, 2000). Faiths that were virtually unknown in the United States several years ago are thriving and growing today. Increased religious diversity means that employers must make more accommodation.

After the events of September 11, 2001, complaints of religious discrimination from Muslim and Middle Eastern employees have significantly increased (www.eeoc.gov). A survey performed of 675 workers from major cities in 47 states found that Muslim feel the most vulnerable to religious discrimination (Brotherton, 2001). According to the 2005 edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia, there are 4.3 million Muslims living in the United States (www.adherents.com, 2005). Experts predict that Islam will surpass Judaism as the second most practiced religion in the United States (Coplan, 2005).

RELIGIOUS RIGHTS

Today's workforce is better educated about their civil rights in the workplace than previous generations (Atkinson, 2000). As a result, today's worker is more likely to stand up for his workplace rights, religious or otherwise. According to Michael Wolf, a Washington D.C. lawyer and arbitrator, "Charges of ... all forms of discrimination have been increasing as employees become more aware of their rights ... employees who might have had legitimate claims in past years under Title VII [of the 1964 Civil Rights Act] often didn't realize they had rights. Now they do" (Atkinson, 2000).

IGNORANCE

Over the last twenty years, it has become common practice to express one's personal views about religious and spiritual topics and to seek religious accommodation in the workplace (Morgan, 2004). This increased desire to express one's self religiously has caused some complicated issues for managers today. A survey performed by Public Agenda revealed that most Americans are ignorant of religions other than their own. Twenty-eight percent of the approximately 2,600 polled stated that they "understood Christianity very well", 17% "understood Judaism very well" and 7% "understood Islam very well" (Brotherton, 2001). Many employers have inadvertently discriminated against employees due to lack of understanding of the employee's religious beliefs and needs ("The Gods", 2000). As a result, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that religious discrimination complaints almost doubled from 1992 to 2002, while sexual harassment cases only increased a very small amount (Morgan, 2004). The laws governing religious diversity are unclear, making it difficult for employers and employees to know where the boundaries are. We hypothesize that employers have religious diversity policies; however we hypothesize that communicating these to employees and customers has not been widely accomplished.

LEGALITIES SURROUNDING ACCOMMODATION

Even though the First Amendment gives protections through the free exercise clause, most employees and employers rely on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its amendments to protect religious freedoms (Ball & Haque, 2003). Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. It prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals because...

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