Religion is mixing with business and raising workplace questions for employers

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The relationship between religion and business in the United States has moved into a decisive new phase. Not long ago the topic might be politely avoided at the office. Now it’s more likely that religion itself — from its role in ESG-related controversies to its practice among employees — might be the main topic. 

Two recent events highlight this consequential shift in the culture of business. 

The first was the controversial swirl of circumstances around the plans of the Los Angeles Dodgers to celebrate Pride Night at Dodger Stadium last June 16. 

The Dodgers initially planned to honor the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an AIDS-service group, on Pride Night. Then the Dodgers revoked the honor in response to conservative Catholic protests that accused the Sisters of being anti-Catholic (the Sisters say they are inspired by Catholic nuns’ heroic service to the poor; their opponents say the Sisters mock the Catholic faith). Then the Dodgers restored the honor in response to LGBTQ and progressive Catholic protests against the protest. 

The twists and turns captured one reality of the brave new world of religion and business: That it is marked by culture war clashes in which what is understood to be “religious” and what is understood to be “secular” seem locked in never-ending battle. 

The other key event came a few weeks later: The unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling that employers must accommodate employees’ religious concerns (for instance, not working on Sundays or other observed days of rest and prayer) unless such concerns pose a “substantial burden” on a business. The previous standard had held that a business for minimal reasons could deny such an accommodation. 

With this ruling, it becomes impossible for business leaders to ask their employees to leave their religious beliefs and traditions at home. 

Employees have been bringing religion to work in increasing numbers.

To be sure, religions have always been involved with business. Biblical texts speak of the morality of buying and selling. For centuries, religious strictures against usury in effect prohibited the widespread use of credit. More recently, religious denominations have engaged in shareholder actions ranging from the 1980s call for divestment from apartheid South Africa to the contemporary drive to divest from fossil fuels. And, of course, millions of employees of businesses throughout the United States are inspired in their work by their religious convictions. 

In fact, employees have been bringing religion to work in increasing numbers.  According to AI and Faith, more than 20% of the Fortune 100 have established faith-based employee resource groups (known as ERGs).

Ethical guideposts

In the face of this new moment, what are key ethical guideposts for executives to keep in mind? 

First, the ethics flows from the framing: Is this a time when aggressive secularism is crowding out religion? Or a time when aggressive religion is crowding out secularism? Our response: no to both.

These questions reinforce culture war frames that obscure realities on the ground or, in this case, in the office and on the shopfloor. The more accurate frame for thinking about the intersection of business and religion today is one articulated by moral philosopher Charles Taylor: That we are living at a time of an astounding diversity of convictions about the meaning of life.

Some such views come from old-time religion. Some come from religions in renewal. Some come from religions such as Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism that are more present than ever in American life. And some come from non-religious world views of great depth and richness. From this framing, Taylor argues, several key ethical principles flow: Treat all equally; give all a hearing; seek harmony among all. 

Second, an organization’s mission and values are its guide to ethical decision making. For example, The Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation website says: “We envision a city where everyone, regardless of ZIP code has the opportunity to thrive. We are tackling the most pressing problems facing Los Angeles with a mission to improve education, health care, homelessness and social justice for all Angelenos.”

Honoring the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is in line with this mission. Using an organization’s mission and values to guide decision making related to culture wars and religious diversity contributes to corporate integrity and allows organizations to share the thinking behind their decision making, a best practice in ethical leadership.

Despite the concerns that religious participation is fading, enough people still consider it vital to their life.

Third, take heart and counsel from the law. Law often responds to changing social norms and values and the recent Supreme Court ruling signals employers that, despite the concerns that religious participation is fading, enough people still consider it vital to their life. The rise of ERGs suggests many consider it vital to their life’s work as well. 

Another recent ruling, related to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, Simeone vs. The Walt Disney Company, reinforces the validity of corporations weighing in on social and political issues, empowering boards to consider stakeholders’ views beyond shareholders. This ruling supports stakeholder capitalism — the belief that interests beyond shareholders can be considered in determining what is in a corporation’s best interests — and gives corporations permission and air cover when wading into social waters, including matters that involve religion.

And this points to our final piece of advice for executives when faced with workplace religious issues: Avoid abstractions about religion and take care of the concrete relationships vital in today’s workplace, both with employees and customers. The ethics of care calls for us to listen and respond to individuals in their specific circumstances rather than merely following rules. It asks us to consider the concerns and feelings of all stakeholders, both those with strongly held religious beliefs and those without.

David E. DeCosse is the director, Religious and Catholic Ethics and Campus Ethics Programs and Ann Skeet is the senior director, Leadership Ethics, both at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Skeet is an adviser for AI and Faith.

More: Supreme Court backs Christian USPS mailman who didn’t want to work Sundays

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