WASHINGTON (RNS) — Naomi Kraus, a senior content strategist for Google, still recalls the childhood experience of seeing a relative coming home from work with his yarmulke not topping his head because he could not reveal his faith at work.
Kraus, now the head of the technology company’s Inter Belief Network, said Jews like herself and people of other faiths can face discrimination on and off the job.
But, she said, they also feel greater acceptance through faith-related employee resource groups, or ERGs, that are growing in prominence in Fortune 500 firms and smaller companies.
“Having members of the community tell their own stories is powerful,” said Kraus, a speaker at the 4th Annual Faith@Work Conference on Tuesday (May 23) at Catholic University of America.
“It’s even more personal when these are the people you work with day in and day out. It is very hard to hate the people that you know.”
The conference, which included a disclaimer that all who appeared onstage were speaking personally and not on behalf of their organization, was a mixture of testimony and training. In the audience were attendees wearing religious garb, like a yarmulke, a turban or hijab, while another occasionally said “Amen” in response to speakers’ remarks. The conference brought together Christian chaplain networks, human resources staffers and members of ERGs that can include people of faith and no faith.
Brian Grim, president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, said its conference drew more than 250 people, with 50 companies represented — more than half of them Fortune 500 firms, such as Dell Technologies, American Airlines and professional services company Accenture.
“We do have very strong evangelicals, and we have the whole variety of every other faith, and everybody’s working together,” said Grim.
“Outside of these kinds of walls, you hear that there’s just sharp divides between evangelicals and others, the culture war divides, but you don’t see that here,” he said.
Over the three-day conference, presenters gave a number of examples, including stories from the digital company Equinix, whose FaithConnect interfaith employee group worked with all of the company’s other ERGs to raise awareness and funds to counter trafficking.
In a breakout session, Mark Whitacre, an executive at Coca-Cola Consolidated, touted the hundreds of people who annually had become new or recommitted Christians after meeting with corporate chaplains or attending prayer groups at the bottler’s distribution and production sites.
In an interview, Whitacre said that he usually attends conferences of Christian groups focused on religious inclusion in the workplace. But he also appreciates the range of perspectives expressed at the Faith@Work gatherings.
“It is important to learn from other faiths,” said Whitacre, vice president of culture and care at Coca-Cola Consolidated and leader of its “t-factor” initiative whose purpose is “to transform workplace cultures around the world for good, for God, for growth.”
Grim said the “Faith@Work” movement has grown since the first conference was held in 2020 weeks before COVID-19 shutdowns. The network grew as companies that had started ERGs met monthly online to share examples of the ways they were working to welcome such groups. Likewise, groups representing faiths ranging from Hindus to Sikhs to Latter-day Saints, started meeting virtually and saw their attendance grow and continued online even when employees headed back to their offices.
Tim Schabel, a human resources contractor for metal-coating company AZZ, said the use of spiritual advisers from the Marketplace Chaplains organization was “one of the biggest tools in the toolbox” to help employees when they needed a listening ear, including during the pandemic.
At a session titled “Providing Spiritual Care Saved a Company,” he read a portion of a report received by a chaplain from someone who appreciated their ministry: “It has been hard to work from home and homeschool my son. I feel overwhelmed a lot, but when you text and you offer to pray for me, I know I can do this!”
Quoting guidelines from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, North Carolina-based lawyer Jeffrey D. Patton offered tips on how companies can remain within legal lines as they seek to give people of faith space to express their religious beliefs and live out their spiritual practices.
“You can integrate faith into every aspect of your workforce, but it has to be voluntary,” he said.
Patton said companies’ approach to faith often boils down to matters of fairness.
“I think it’s incredibly unrealistic and frankly unfair to tell an employee that you have to check your faith at the door,” he said. “If you’re opening up your facilities after hours so people can stick around after work and use a room to draft a fantasy football team, then allow them to use that same room for faith-based reasons.”
Grim and others attending the meeting looked ahead to ways to expand their movement nationally and globally.
Mariyam Cementwala, a senior policy adviser in the State Department’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, spoke of the department’s five-year strategic plan that calls for it to increase respect and a culture of accessibility for religious minorities and religious diversity.
“It’s a good sign, absolutely, because it shows we’re not talking; we’re actually putting it on paper and sharing it with (the U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and the White House that this is what we’re going to do,” she said in an interview. “Obviously, we talk about religious freedom abroad, and we also live or walk the walk at home.”
When the time came for questions in a breakout session featuring Whitacre and Patton, several company representatives volunteered to work together on model policies for handling requests for religious accommodation, with hopes of developing a FAQ for managers that could be shared within their network.
Students at Mormon church-affiliated Brigham Young University spoke on a panel about how they won a “case competition” that showed the importance and benefits of acknowledging, respecting and incorporating the faith of people in workplaces.
Grim hoped the students’ victory was a harbinger for the offices of the future.
“Rising business students just expect that they should be able to bring who they are to work,” he said. “So the next generation already has that mindset.”