In a pandemic-wracked year, religious leaders and spiritual counselors showed resilience and found reasons for hope as they re-imagined their mission. (March 12)
Religious diversity is still an afterthought for many companies. That’s a costly mistake, in both human and financial terms.
“Thank God for Texas barbecue,” I said as I pulled into the parking lot. I lead an organization that works with colleges on matters related to religious diversity, and I was heading to Baylor University to give a keynote on interfaith cooperation. A friend had told me about a barbecue joint near its southeastern Texas campus, and I went over to eat before my speech.
But I started to reconsider as soon as I walked inside. Fox News was blaring from a television with a story about Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, and about a dozen white guys wearing overalls stared at me, a brown-skinned man, as I walked in.
At the food counter, the items were not labeled very well. I’m Muslim, and I don’t eat pork.
Living in Chicago, I usually tell servers about my religious restrictions. But feeling suspicious eyes on me, I decided that announcing my minority faith was not wise. So I went item by item, asking for ingredients. Now, I was holding up the line.
Then something happened. The server said, warmly: “Here are the four things you can eat.” She piled my plate with food that didn’t include pork.
I don’t know whether she knew I was Muslim, but she knew I was something different. And thanks to her hospitality, I got barbecue, her restaurant got $11.99 and she got a $10 tip.
It was a successful business transaction, which happened only because she was sensitive to my religious identity.
I think about this story a lot when I think about religion’s place in corporate America. In recent months, businesses have increasingly paid attention to racial and gender diversity. But religious diversity is still largely an afterthought – even though religious intolerance and faith-based hate crimes surged during the Trump presidency and show few signs of going away.
One 2020 analysis of Fortune 100 companies by the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation found that religion receives less attention than all other major identity categories, including race/ethnicity, women/gender and sexual orientation. And more than half of those companies make no mention of religion or faith on their diversity homepages.
That’s a costly mistake, in both human and financial terms.
Corporations are uniquely positioned to help curb religious intolerance because they can provide employees with the tools to navigate diversity, and accommodating religious differences among staff can also boost morale and retention.
Businesses also can tap into new markets by creating services that cater to the desires of different religious groups, boosting their bottom lines.
Nike executive saw Muslim women’s need
Consider the case of Martha Moore, a vice president at Nike. When she went to the beach, she often noticed that Muslim women did not go in the water. Those who did wore swimsuits that looked heavy and uncomfortable. As a designer, she saw an opportunity. Why not figure out how to make swimwear for the hundreds of millions of Muslim women who want to go to swim in attire that adheres to the modesty standards of their religion, and is comfortable? She and her team at Nike went to work and designed precisely that. The swimwear line launched in late 2019, enabling Nike to access new customers clamoring for modest swimwear.
Nike isn’t alone. Last year in Malaysia, Starbucks recognized that because of the pandemic, many people could not visit family for Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, marked by daily fasting from dawn to sunset. So the company created Ramadan Bazaar-inspired treats to make people feel at home.
Netflix, meanwhile, has churned out content that highlights different aspects of diverse religions such as an animated show about Hindu deities called “Ghee Happy.” Marvel recently cast its first on-screen Muslim superhero. And dating apps for people of different faiths have been around for a while – from Christian Mingle to JDate.
Internally, companies also are leading the charge to accommodate religious diversity. Tyson Foods has about 100 chaplains available to provide pastoral care to team members and their families, regardless of specific religious beliefs. Intel offers several employee resource groups dedicated to different faiths – including Christians, Jews, Muslims and, notably, agnostics and atheists.
Conrad lost discrimination case
Internal policies that encourage tolerance also help avoid public criticism and costly lawsuits. For example, in 2019, a Christian dishwasher at Conrad Miami Hotel won a $21.5 million lawsuit because the company didn’t accommodate her religious schedule. And in 2015, Abercrombie & Fitch lost a lawsuit that went to the Supreme Court because it refused to hire a prospective employee who wore a headscarf due to her religion.
There’s reason to believe that more companies will devote attention to faith going forward. For example, I recently spoke with Starbucks staff about religious diversity. After the talk, a manager said the discussion prompted her to think about her Muslim friends fasting during Ramadan, and how Starbucks could adjust their hours to open for them in the early morning.
This is promising, but there’s a long way to go. The United States is a religiously diverse country. It’s also a country rife with religious intolerance.
Corporate America can be a part of the solution – or it can sit on the sidelines and allow the problem to fester. The choice should be a simple one.
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