'Religion' Makes Inroads in the Corporate Arena

Believers, mostly evangelical Christian, are carving a niche in the workplace. Even with company limits in place, the office atmosphere is shifting.

By Faye Fiore

Los Angeles Times

May 15, 2005

DULLES, Va. — In an auditorium on America Online's rolling campus, a glorious expanse of the heavens is projected on a big screen. Reggie Evans, a former Redskins running back turned emissary of Christ, has come to spread the Holy Word in the secular corridors of one of the biggest, richest Internet companies in the world. He has brought along some football cards and a stack of Bibles.

About 75 Christian workers listen raptly as Evans advises them to carry out their work as if Jesus were sitting next to them. But when he suggests that they knock on a colleague's cubicle and propose, "Here's a Bible, maybe we can read this together," even the most devout among them know they will not be following his advice.

"My eyes rolled back when I heard that. We're not here to convert people," said Jack Clark, a technical project manager and member of a recently formed employee group called Christians @ AOL, which had invited Evans to speak.

Pushed primarily by evangelical Christians, faith is finding a growing presence in corporations that for years have been resistant to religious expression, including such giants as AOL Inc., Intel Corp., American Express Co., American Airlines Inc. and Ford Motor Co.

But it is an uneasy, risk-prone experiment. An evangelical movement emboldened by its strength in the 2004 presidential election, and pressing hard to advance its agenda in the battles over abortion and same-sex marriage, is finding that it must accept limits to secure a place in the corporate world.

Companies are allowing employees to sing the Lord's praises only according to strict rules — at lunch and on breaks, and only to those who want to listen — to minimize the threat to workplace harmony. Proselytizing, which can be seen as intrusive and a possible violation of harassment laws, is not permitted.

In return, some companies let workers share Bible verses on the company listserv, advertise religious events on the company intranet and invite inspirational speakers like Evans to read Scripture in the corporate auditorium. In that case, AOL went so far as to provide sandwiches and pizza.

Even with these limits, however, the introduction of religion is changing the workplace atmosphere. Though it frees Christians like Clark to bring their "whole selves" to work, it troubles many who are unaccustomed to seeing a Bible on a desk or hearing a supervisor respond to a casual "How's it going?" with an earnest "I'm blessed."

One AOL executive who recently passed through the company's glass lobby stopped short when the electronic bulletin board — which usually lists snow days or changes in the dental plan — advertised a seminar called "God at Work."

"It really required a double take. I looked at it the way you slow down for a car wreck," said the executive, who asked not to be identified because his comments were not authorized by the company.

Since the 1980s, employers have allowed workers with common interests — including gays and lesbians, military families, and people of shared ethnic backgrounds — to form "diversity groups." Some companies say the policy has helped the bottom line: Recruitment, retention and productivity have improved as employees have begun to feel more connected to the workplace.

So when Christians started asking to be included in the trend, many companies saw it as an extension of an idea that already had served them well. Some offered not only access to corporate facilities, but also budgets that could run into the thousands of dollars.

"There are intangible benefits," said Tiane Mitchell-Gordon, AOL's director of diversity and inclusion. Companies profit, she said, when their workers are highly engaged.

Yet other firms worried about the effect on workplace comity, not to mention potential lawsuits on grounds of religious harassment. Coca-Cola Co. and General Motors Corp., among others, have refused to recognize religious employee groups, though they allow workers to organize around race, sexual orientation and gender. AOL also seems to take pains to avoid linking religion with its brand name; when one employee brought a Bible to the photo session for this story, a company official told him to put it away.

"There is a spectrum ranging from proactive corporate leaders who are saying we need to think about this and find appropriate ways to embrace it, and others who say this is a complete hornet's nest," said David W. Miller, executive director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. "We are watching corporate America in the throes of this. It's the great laboratory."

The push for religious expression is coming from people of many faiths but primarily from evangelical Christians.

Some evangelicals say they have been inspired by President Bush's born-again convictions. Others point to the Bible, noting that of 40 divine interventions recorded in the Book of Acts, 39 were in the marketplace — as were all but 10 of Jesus' public appearances in the New Testament.

"My faith is part of me," says Jim Sabia, 33, a senior software designer at AOL. "It doesn't stop when I get home from church or when I go to work."

Sabia first came to know the Lord, as he puts it, six years ago when a Christian colleague at his former job asked if he thought there was a God. Now he spends his lunch hour every Tuesday in prayer and fellowship with a dozen or so other men. Most recently they've been studying sexual purity.

Sometimes, Sabia said, it's hard to contain his enthusiasm for his faith.

"It's one of the things you struggle with," he said. "As evangelical Christians, we are called to go out there, but I don't go around from cube to cube with my Bible saying, 'Repent and be healed.' "

Whether others share his restraint is what most concerns critics of the trend. A tenet of evangelical Christianity is to save the unsaved — to be a "fisher of men." There has long been tension in churches about what that means exactly, with some adopting a much more aggressive approach than others.

Angie Tracey, 49, and her husband attend the First Baptist Church in Conyers, Ga., on Wednesdays and Sundays. For years, she prayed for someone to start a fellowship at the sprawling Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where she works in strategic planning. One day, she said, God let her know she should do it herself.

The group, formed in 2001, has 400 members. Its quarterly church picnic-style events have outgrown the CDC's facilities, so members use a sanctuary nearby. The picnic features a "praise team" of singers, a pianist and a potluck. Tracey brings the ham. They are all back at their desks before the lunch hour ends.

The CDC workforce resources department reported receiving one informal complaint shortly after the group formed. And Tracey said she had fielded a handful of critical e-mails. She said she prayed over them.

By law, employers must accommodate reasonable religious expression, but also protect against discrimination or harassment, including unwanted proselytizing, said Chris Anders, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington who specializes in religion in the workplace.

Similarly, federal workers have broad rights to religious expression under guidelines issued by President Clinton, as long as it does not affect workplace efficiency or could be seen as government endorsement of religion. That means federal workers may wear religious head coverings, keep a Bible or Koran on their desk or talk about religion if co-workers do not object.

There are no across-the-board rules saying private employers must forbid or allow religious affinity groups, Anders said. The result has been a patchwork of policies that sometimes appears to defy logic.

Coca-Cola, based in Atlanta, and General Motors of Detroit say they do not recognize groups that promote a "particular religion or political belief," saying the groups foster divisiveness.

But Ford allows eight different faith-based groups, believing that they foster cohesiveness.

Ford initially balked at the idea, fearing some employees would feel excluded if others gathered around a single religion. But three years ago, the company came upon a rather unusual model — allowing faith-based groups to form but requiring them to work together as part of an interfaith network. The network now represents Buddhists, Mormons, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and evangelical Christians, among others.

"It's a great danger many companies and groups will face in the workplace environment," said Joe Lewis, 54, a Jewish representative on the network's board of directors. "If a [manager] likes to have a prayer breakfast and is of a particular faith, others may feel intimated and excluded.

"Ford, with its commitment to diversity, has found a way around this problem," he said.

The network tries to make sure all faiths feel accommodated — that Muslim workers have a place for foot-washing and prayer, that Christians can punctuate e-mails with a Bible verse or that the proper cake is served to a Jewish employee during Passover.

Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., known as Freddie Mac, says it recognizes affinity groups built only around "unchangeable and immutable human differences," such as race, gender or sexuality. The company includes in that definition adoptive parents and military spouses but not religion.

Even without formal approval, a Christian group still meets regularly at Freddie Mac. It is permitted to use empty conference rooms and copiers but does not receive a stipend or hold corporation-wide events. That reduced status has left Randolph Maxwell and his Christian colleagues feeling like second-class citizens.

"I think it's discriminatory," said Maxwell, 47, director of treasury business operations. He believes his non-Hodgkin's lymphoma was cured miraculously and has committed his life to Christ as a result.

There are enough examples of religious fervor gone awry to give corporations pause. In February, an American Airlines pilot reportedly alarmed passengers when he asked Christians to raise their hands and called those who didn't "crazy." Several years ago, a Hewlett-Packard Co. employee was fired after posting Bible verses at his cubicle that appeared to condemn gays and lesbians.

But those wary of bringing faith to the workplace worry more about the potential for subtle abuses, such as the unspoken pressure to join a prayer group that a supervisor leads, or the awkwardness of knowing the colleague at the next desk is waiting for you to see the light and ask to be saved.

Even if the urge to convert others is restrained, Christian employees say they regularly pray for their colleagues' salvation. That characteristic sets them apart from, say, ethnic or gay groups.

"There's a fine line to walk between sharing your values at work in a positive way and feeling the workplace would be better if everybody shared your values," said the Rev. Thomas Sullivan, director of spiritual life at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., outside of Boston. "As soon as you get into the second realm, you start having uncomfortable people."

At the automaker Ford, workers say the interfaith religious group has helped them forge a new unity.

Dan Dunnigan, 46, the network's chairman, said that after a rough start, employees of different faiths have come to understand one another — so much so that when the group received a piece of hate mail about Islam, Dunnigan took care of it himself, writing back a thoughtful defense without ever showing it to his Muslim colleague.

"I thought it would have hurt him deeply, and I didn't want that," he said. "Before this, I didn't know about Islam, and now I know a little bit. You find out that people value family, integrity, high morals, and you say, 'Wow, I believe that, too.' "