Is religion at work still taboo? Not everywhere 

by Francesca Fontana | Wall Street Journal

Nazneen Nathani, an associate manager at Accenture, prays in a designated prayer room at the office. Photo by Justin L. Stewart for The Wall Street Journal.

Nazneen Nathani, an associate manager at Accenture, prays in a designated prayer room at the office. Photo by Justin L. Stewart for The Wall Street Journal.

French oil giant Total SA recently sent its 96,000 employees an unusual corporate missive: a comprehensive guide to religion at work.

Intended as a practical tool for managers and employees, its 80-plus pages cover everything from the basic tenets of major world religions to whether bosses must provide halal food during company meals.

Few if any U.S. companies have gone as far as Total, but religious issues are cropping up more often in the workplace, resulting in lawsuits and complicated questions of faith on the job. At a time when many managers encourage employees to “bring their whole selves to work” and celebrate their individual identities, religious identity has proved tougher to navigate, managers and experts say.

When it comes to faith, most companies “stay as far away as they can,” for fear of making a wrong—or unlawful—move, said Deb Dagit, former chief diversity officer at drugmaker Merck & Co. Ms. Dagit now runs her own consulting group.

Religious discrimination complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission increased by 50% from 2006 to 2016. While religious discrimination comprises a relatively small portion of EEOC complaints, the rise reflects an ever more multicultural workforce with a wider array of religious faiths, said Mark Fowler, deputy chief executive of Tanenbaum, a nonprofit that works to eliminate religious prejudice.

At 92 pages, the English-language version of Total’s guide offers few firm rules but states that employees’ religious practices, such as prayer, should generally be respected and accommodated. Employees aren’t required to read the document, which is available to those who are “curious,” said a company spokeswoman.

The company created the guide to aid managers and employees who “may have questions or doubts on this topic, working with people who might not eat, dress or pray the same,” said the spokeswoman.

U.S. companies often fail to address employee faith until problems arise, said Philadelphia-based employment attorney Jonathan Segal of Duane Morris LLP. Companies cannot ban religious expression outright, and U.S. Title VII requires employers to accommodate religious expression so long as it doesn’t cause undue hardship on the company or workforce.

“Employees don’t shed their religious rights when they walk in the door,” Mr. Segal said. “It’s a balance.” For instance, he said, a receptionist’s request to keep a Bible at the front desk may be treated differently than an employee’s request to keep one in an office, away from public view.

Failing to strike that balance can put companies into hot water. After turning down a Muslim job applicant because her head scarf violated dress codes for retail employees, Abercrombie & Fitch Co. lost a discrimination case that went to the Supreme Court in 2015.

‘Employees don’t shed their religious rights when they walk in the door. It’s a balance.’

—Jonathan Segal, a Philadelphia-based employment attorney

In a statement, Abercrombie said that it had “granted numerous religious accommodations when requested, including hijabs” and “remains focused on ensuring the company has an open-minded and tolerant workplace environment for all current and future store associates.”

In December 2015, Cargill Inc. fired more than 100 Muslim workers from a meatpacking plant in Fort Morgan, Colo., in the midst of a dispute over whether they could take prayer breaks at work. The workers, mostly from Somalia, filed complaints with the EEOC and were deemed eligible for unemployment benefits by Colorado’s labor department in 2016.

At the time, the Council of American-Islamic Relations said that the company told workers prayer breaks were no longer allowed, while a Cargill spokesman said that no changes had been made to the company’s religious accommodation policies.

Tensions are being felt across the spectrum of faiths. A 2013 Tanenbaum survey of 2,024 workers showed that white evangelicals were equally as likely as non-Christians to say they felt their faiths weren’t respected at work, and 28% of workers said discrimination against Christians is as serious an issue as discrimination against religious minorities.

The two easiest accommodations companies can make, according to Mr. Fowler, are allowances for Sabbath observances or religious holidays and providing kosher, halal or vegetarian options at company-sponsored events.

Religion is often missing from conversations about corporate diversity policies, said Ms. Dagit. During her time at Merck, the company started faith-based employee resource groups and educated employees on religious traditions during the holiday season. Even small things, like celebrating winter holidays, such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, help workers feel more included, she said.

Tanenbaum’s survey found that workers at companies with religious nondiscrimination policies were less likely to say they were seeking a new job. And, those with access to flexible hours for religious observance were more than twice as likely to say they look forward to coming to work.

Every afternoon, Nazneen Nathani, an associate manager at consulting firm Accenture PLC, stops in a designated prayer room in her Los Angeles office. A Shiite Muslim, she prays up to five times daily, but just once at the office.

“It’s not an easy time to be a Muslim in America,” said Ms. Nathani, a 14-year company veteran who works in risk management and quality. The accommodations “show me that I’m valued, and not just for my contributions as an employee, but also for who I am underneath all of that.”