Religion Can Work in the Workplace

Traditional business models separated work from church, requiring some employees to lead almost

In the 25 years that Mark Carr has run his automotive franchise business according to Christian teachings, he’s never considered it a conflict.

“Downsides? I don’t see any,” says Carr, who named his Houston startup Christian Brothers Automotive Corp., because he wanted to let everyone know Jesus was at the wheel.

“We are in a very, very crummy business that is known for being dishonest,” says Carr, who has 41 franchises with 2006 revenue of some $42 million. “Christianity is the driving force to be honest with customers, do the best possible job that I can and have integrity.”

There has been no systematic study to determine exactly how many U.S. startups are openly faith-based, according to David Miller, executive director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and a former entrepreneur.

“That said, many smaller businesses and startups are incorporating altruistic dimensions into their business plan and credo,” he says. “Some may be explicitly faith-oriented while others might not mention faith,” but were inspired by religious teachings or the entrepreneur’s personal values.

‘Divine’ Entrepreneurship

There are also church-sponsored entrepreneurship schools, like the Joseph Center in Forest Park, Ill., which views entrepreneurship as a divine calling. Worship and work are certainly not opposing forces – if they ever were, Miller says. But are they good partners?

“The old model of how to succeed in business is you kept your personal life separate,” he explains. “That led to many unhappy lives – almost a schizophrenic existence. In the past few decades, enlightened companies began to realize that it’s in everybody’s interest to treat people holistically, have the whole self come to work.”

Jim Geiger agrees. As a devout Catholic and founder of Cbeyond Inc., an Atlanta-based small-business VoIP provider with $214 million in revenue in 2006, Geiger incorporated religious values into his company’s 1999 launch.

“We make it clear that we don’t mind a discussion about faith,” Geiger says. Humility is valued at the seven Cbeyond offices, and many of its 1,000 employees volunteer in their communities – which the company encourages.

“One of the ways we incorporate faith is in the notion that we’re servant-leaders and we talk about being blessed, about giving back,” Geiger says.

The Law says ‘Be Cool’

As long as you don’t discriminate in the hiring process by selecting only same-faith followers or push one particular religion on employees, the law’s behind you, says Dudley Rochelle, an Atlanta labor lawyer.

“In recent years, you see more and more about companies rallying religious activity in the workplace,” she says. “People are connecting more to their faith and feeling comfortable talking about it.”

Americans are also more aware of religious harassment, especially since 9/11. “Islamic believers bring it to the forefront because they have a need to [pray] during the workday that makes it visible to other employees and to customers,” Rochelle says.

One way to incorporate religion in the workplace is to offer a meditation room for employees to use, Miller suggests, or encourage workers to convene Bible study or group prayer – “as long as it doesn’t interrupt the flow.”

Many companies hire a corporate chaplain. “They wander around the factory floor or office, visiting people, asking how they’re doing,” Miller says. “They’re not there to proselytize. There are countless stories of employees who are in ruins, but workplace chaplains got them back on their feet.”

‘A company can’t be Christian; a company is a company’

Be careful, though, about being blatantly religious. Miller and Rochelle discourage corporate leaders from posting icons or asking employees to sign on to a particular belief.

“They certainly have a right to do that,” Miller says. But doing so may scare away customers, or worse, invite lawsuits. Employees aren’t even required to let a supervisor know before filing a harassment claim with the EEOC for unwelcome religious advances.

As consultant to the Fellowship of Companies for Christ International, Inc. (now Christ@Work), an umbrella organization linking religious entrepreneurs, Rochelle cringed when clients said they ran “a Christian company.”

“I would say, ‘A company can’t be Christian; a company is a company,’” she recalls. “The founder can put forth principles, say, ‘I founded the company on these principles.’ That’s about as far as you can go – unless you attach a lot of disclaimers.”

“America was settled on the premise of people fleeing religious persecution,” she notes. “It’s a[n] important value in America to be able to live out your religion. The other big American characteristic is pragmatism in business. Companies want to make money. Those two things have to work together.”

Religion at work is OK, Miller concludes, when done right. “You don’t have to have it screaming from the rooftops in blinking neon lights. Quietly, through leadership and written documentation,” it’s OK to rely on religious teachings if the goal is building a respectful and humane corporate culture.

Anyone can sign on to that.

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