Expert suggests companies outline acceptable religious conduct in employee handbook.
Rob Skinner did not expect to find a chaplain in the office when he started his sales job at Piedmont Air Conditioning in Raleigh, North Carolina. "I was a little worried because I didn't want God shoved down my throat," says Skinner, 38, a self-described liberal Christian.
Turns out Dwayne Reece, from the nonprofit, nondenominational Corporate Chaplains of America -- which provides Christian chaplains for companies that request them -- offered encouraging words instead.
Piedmont had hired him after the death of an employee, and it worked out so well, he's been visiting for nine years.
"Having him there really makes you feel that the company cares," Skinner says.
Religion, like sex and politics, once was considered inappropriate watercooler talk. Not anymore. Prayer sessions, religious diversity groups and chaplains like Reece, along with rabbis and imams, have become more common across corporate America in the past decade.
Fifty percent of those questioned in a 2002 Gallup poll said religious expression should be tolerated in the work place while another 28 percent thought it should be encouraged. That's compared to 21percent who didn't see a place for religious expression on the job.
Reactions span the spectrum
"Faith is coming out of the closet at work," says David W. Miller, author of "God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement." "It could be as simple as using a Buddha screen saver or having a cross at your desk."
David Silverman, 41, of Cranbury, New Jersey, doesn't mind a cross. But spare him the sermon. "In my last job, people held prayer sessions during office hours," he says. "I had secretaries tell me to accept Jesus."
Frustrated that managers looked the other way, he started an atheist and agnostic group at work. Eventually, he quit.
It is not just the anti-religious, agnostics or atheists who want to keep religion out of the office. Greg Willits, 37, of Conyers, Georgia, works for a Catholic nonprofit. How does he feel about religion at work?
"Ironically, I think it is better to leave it out of the workplace, if it is a non-faith-based job," says Willits. "I think religion is a very personal and emotional thing for many people. Bringing religion into the workplace can cause trouble."
The increase in religious expression at work may be tied to politics. "When President Bush took office, he was very vocal about his faith," says Os Hillman, founder and director of the International Coalition of Workplace Ministries. "I think that gave those of faith the license to share their beliefs."
Many employees appreciate those options. Texas Instruments in Dallas, for example, provides serenity rooms for prayer and mediation. "Our company gives us a place to go say our prayers easily and then we can get back to work," says Siraj Akhtar, 33, an RFID design manager whose Muslim faith requires him to pray five times a day. "In the past we would go to a stairwell, which was not the best thing to do."
Downside: Lawsuits more common
But it's easy for problems to arise, ranging from bad feelings to legal action. The number of lawsuits claiming workplace religious discrimination, while relatively low, jumped by nearly 50 percent between 1997 and 2007 to 2,541, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
"While people lobby for integration of faith in the workplace, management must realize that many things that may seem legitimate are actually unlawful under our employment laws," says A. Martin Wickliff, a managing partner of Epstein Becker Green Wickliff & Hall in Houston who specializes in labor and employment practice and has handled several such lawsuits.
He suggests that companies outline acceptable religious conduct in their employee handbooks. And he tells workers to learn their legal rights: They can't be forced into religious activities, and their beliefs must be accommodated unless it creates undue hardship for the employer. However, employers are not required by law to provide places to worship.
Good for employers?
A common issue is employees needing recurring time off for religious reasons, such as leaving before sundown on Fridays, not working on Saturdays (for Seventh-day Adventists or Jews) or praying throughout the day (for Muslims). Companies vary on how they handle it. Some employees use vacation or personal days. Others are able to negotiate flextime, or even meet with their religious advisers at work -- the Jewish group Aish New York, for example, sends rabbis to executives for one-on-one religious study.
Human resources consultant David Tulin thinks that's good for business. Respectful employers often will retain the "best and the brightest" workers, says Tulin, principal of Cincinnati-based Global Lead Management Consulting.
Experts like Tulin recommend that companies create faith-friendly policies through a "religious-diversity lens." They say employees should be up front about their religious needs. And they encourage creating safe spaces for dialogue between groups.
"It is easy to fixate on the negative aspects of religion," says Akhtar, "but the more employees share their experiences, the more you find commonalities."
Not everyone thinks the office is the place for that. Silverman, now a volunteer speaker for the nonprofit American Atheists, is one:
"There are more places to pray in America than (there are) pizza parlors. Go to them."
Maya Dollarhide is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York.