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Uneasy partners: religion in the workplace

Muslim prayer beads

“It’s like being told to take off your hat when you enter a restaurant.”

That’s how a former top executive described how it felt to be told he could no longer meet with his coworkers for a Christian Bible study at JPMorgan’s midtown Manhattan office. He felt that openly engaging with fellow Christians didn’t quite have a place at work.

“It’s treated as a voluntary religion,” says the executive, who asked not to be named. “JPMorgan was extremely politically correct and there were certain things they were willing to bend over backwards for. Christian gatherings weren’t one of them.”

The executive belonged to a men’s group at JPMorgan that he says met once a week during lunch hours to pray and read the Bible together in a company conference room.

His experience raises questions about whether religion has a place within the walls of our offices, and why religious groups typically aren’t treated in the same way at work as other affinity groups like the LGBT community and various other ethnic groups.

At JPMorgan, the first iteration of the Christian Bible study was disbanded during the bear market of 2000 because all employees were prohibited from using the dining room for personal meetings. A second one sprouted up a few years later. The executive we spoke to said the group gained a lot of traction, with several employees even teleconferencing in from remote offices.

But one day in early 2014 he got an email from the human resources department that stated “the group was not allowed to have organized religious meetings on-site,” according to the executive who spoke with Yahoo Finance. He believes “there’s definitely persecution that comes with being Christian [in the workplace].”

A spokesperson for the bank told Yahoo Finance that she not aware of such an instance where people who met during lunch were told they could no longer congregate. She did, however, emphasize that any group gathering should not interfere with one’s work schedule.

She said it’s possible the group was disbanded because it used JPMorgan’s resources for teleconferencing. Those resources are quite expensive, and conference rooms are intended for professional meetings only, the spokesperson said.

She added: “We do have a policy that specifically states that resources can only be used for business purposes. With 250,000 employees globally that is a reasonable request.”

Separation of church & work

Organizations like JPMorgan do provide resources for non-religious activities or groups intended to bring people together and provide a forum for employees to meet and relate to others. 

The bank has 200 chapters of nine affinity groups, like Adelante for Hispanic and Latino employees, as well as AsPIRE, which stands for Asians and Pacific Islanders Reaching for Excellence. Yet Another group, PRIDE, supports LGBT employees and allies, while Voices of Employees That Served (VETS) engages veterans, retirees, reservists, National Guard, military alumni and their supporters.

Most large organizations offer some variety of mentorship and leadership skill-building programs like these for minority groups. But, like JPMorgan, few employers facilitate groups pegged to a religious belief system.

That’s despite the fact that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has said in its own guidance that employers must provide reasonable accommodation for workers’ religious practices, Jill Rosenberg, partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe focusing on employment law, told Yahoo Finance. However, she notes, the employer doesn’t have to provide space for employees to practice their religion if there’s an alternative place to worship or if it’s an unreasonable burden.

“Employers are required to accommodate individuals’ religious beliefs so long as it doesn’t impose or cause hardship on the employer’s business,” she says. “Employers have a duty to accommodate — there has to be a sincere religious belief and practice if it’s to be accommodated. Employers won’t dig around regarding specific religious beliefs. It’s a balancing act between what’s reasonable and what’s appropriate.”

JPMorgan, for example, attempts to offer a quiet room for prayer for individuals at each of its larger offices, according to the spokesperson. But that wasn’t feasible at one of its UK outposts, which has a large Muslim population. Because there wasn’t a way to create a prayer room that was large enough, JPMorgan even offers transportation to the local mosque so employees can access a place for prayer.

Of course, it’s not always easy for employers to accommodate workers’ religious practices. And changing social mores in the US can make religion in the workplace a thorny issue. A recent study found the share of Christians in the US was dropping while other religions are growing. Meanwhile, 2015 Gallup poll found Americans’ confidence in the church and organized religion has fallen dramatically over the past four decades and hit an all-time low of 42%.

“More and more people are insistent that they want to live out their religion and not just go to church once a week. But that’s happening at the same time as others who want to be free from religion entirely. So we have this automatic clash as people assert their rights in both directions,” says employment relations attorney Bob Gregg.

An Imam speaks to a local news agency about the dispute over prayer at Ariens. Screenshot/WBAY.com

This kind of tension is playing out in Wisconsin, where earlier this year, a civil liberties group representing former Muslim employees at Ariens, a manufacturing equipment firm, filed a religious discrimination complaint alleging employees were no longer allowed to take prayer breaks at times that are in accordance with their religion.

The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) submitted the charges of discrimination with the EEOC along with a letter that states that Ariens had allowed Muslim employees to take prayer breaks one at a time after alerting a supervisor. However, employees claimed the firm enforced a policy in January that only permitted two pre-determined 10-minute breaks per shift.

According to CAIR, Ariens threatened to fire employees who continued to pray beyond the breaks they were allowed; seven Muslim employees were fired this year and 14 others quit over this dispute in a sign of solidarity. The former employees claim Ariens violated the Title VII Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on religion.

From the company’s perspective, it was providing accommodations by offering two 10-minute breaks per work shift. Devout Muslim employees objected to this policy because it made it impossible for them to pray five times a day.

“We handled this with the same straightforward approach we use every day at Ariens Company. Recognizing there are language barriers and cultural differences, we allowed for extra time. We would have liked for more of the employees to stay, however, we respect their faith, we respect the work they have done for Ariens Company, and we respect their decisions,” Ariens said in a statement.

Religion’s physical manifestations

Samantha Elauf stands outside the Supreme Court in Washington after winning her case against Abercrombie & Fitch. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The right to prayer and have fellowship groups aren’t the only religious issues that come up in the workplace. When it comes to appearance, employers must allow their workers to wear religious garb and paraphernalia unless it creates a safety issue or materially affects the accomplishment of work, according to Gregg.

The Supreme Court affirmed this notion in an 8-1 decision last summer when it revived a Muslim woman’s case claiming Abercrombie & Fitch refused to hire her because of her head scarf.

The now-deceased Justice Antonin Scalia wrote: “Title VII forbids adverse employment decisions made with a forbidden motive whether this motive derives from actual knowledge, a well-founded suspicion or merely a hunch. An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.”

Even though the law requires employers to allow Muslims wear traditional hijab, people who practice Islam may still face bias in the workplace. This prejudice toward specific religious groups like Muslims ramped up after 9/11, which was linked to radical Islam. According to a recent Gallup poll, 43% of Americans harbor some degree of prejudice toward Muslims.

Others find their physical garb can serve as an advantage because it allows them to express their religion. That category includes Eli Langer, who’s now CMO at a kosher supermarket chain called Cedar Market, and was previously employed at CNBC as a social media producer. He wears a yarmulke and says, “I would never work in a place that wouldn’t accept my religion. I always felt comfortable being myself and my Jewish religion.”

He said his colleagues and managers were very accommodating of his schedule.

And, if anything, he says his religious identifier gave him a unique edge: “The yarmulke made me stand out. There was a CEO who may not have remembered my name but would tell my coworkers, ‘Send my regards to the boy with the yarmulke.’ I was the only boy with a yarmulke there. Wearing a yarmulke is my badge of honor.”

He pursued the career change for a variety of reasons but says religious hostility was certainly not one of them. To be sure, he enjoys working in an environment that nurtures his faith. At the kosher supermarket chain, he knows he’s surrounded by likeminded individuals who share his values. This gives him a level of peace and comfort. However, Langer says he has moments where he misses the diversity at a place like CNBC.

“A core of my Jewish upbringing is to help educate others who might not have had the experiences I have had growing up Jewish,” he says. “There were days where I had to fast and would receive notes from my first boss there asking what an ‘easy and meaningful fast’ was and whether that was the correct way to say it.”

A different kind of hedge fund

When you think of a faith-based or affiliated organization you might think of a nonprofit organization or Kosher supermarket chains like the one Langer works for.

But you probably wouldn’t associate the words “Christianity” and “hedge fund.” New York City hedge funds are cutthroat at best. At worst, we’re talking raucous activity you thought only existed in a movie like “Wolf of Wall Street,” — like when ex-hedge funder Brett Barna hosted a Hamptons party featuring gun-toting little people and an allegedly trashed $20 million mansion.

However, Bill Hwang has been on a mission to rebrand his own hedge fund as one with values that would align closer to a church than a ‘70s nightclub. He was one of a handful of coveted tiger cubs who eked out impressive returns, averaging 16% gains each year from 2001 to 2012. But after an SEC investigation in 2013, Hwang’s firm seemed to topple from its high. Hwang’s New York-based hedge fund, Tiger Asia Management, had to pay $5.8 million to more than 1,800 investors after the fund admitted to using inside information to trade Chinese bank stocks.

In 2013, Hwang turned Tiger Asia into a family investment office (which manages only the money of the Hwang, his family and select employees) and renamed it Archegos, which means “beginning,” “origin,” or “ruler” in Greek. The word is deeply rooted in Christian scripture — it’s used to describe someone who is a leader, prince or ruler. In the Christian faith, Jesus is often referred to as “archegos” — a pioneer or someone who is paving the way.

Andy Mills, the executive chairman and president of Archegos, met Hwang while he was president of The King’s College, a Christian liberal arts college in New York City. Mills ended up being the president of the College twice — the first time from May 2008 through December 2008 and again from October 2012 to July 2013; during this time he also co-chaired the Theology of Work Project, which researches and develops ways that Christians can apply their faith to non-church related work.

Through an event organized by the Theology of Work (TOW), Hwang heard Mills speak and the two immediately hit it off. “I was a college president and he was a wealthy Christian so those are the meetings you take. We spent two hours together and after a few minutes we started sharing scripture. We started meeting every few weeks and five years later he asked me to come work with him,” Mills said.

Archegos is not religiously affiliated but Mills estimates that about 70% of its 50 employees are of the Christian faith. So how exactly can investing fit in the realm of Christian living? “There’s nothing antithetical with being an excellent organization and building that on biblical principles. A lot of people think you have to trade one for the other,” Mills says.

Archegos’s core values are excellence, integrity, conviction and perseverance. Its website emphasizes its “strong mission and values-driven culture and a deliberate focus on mentoring its people and growing them professionally.” Archegos fully supports the Grace and Mercy Foundation, which is a 501(c)(3).

Mills says teamwork is the fundamental principle for employees at Archegos: The idea is that you can produce industry-leading returns but at the same time create a firm where people want to grow together.

To pray or not to pray (at work)

A firm like Archegos isn’t for everybody. It would be impossible — and not necessarily desirable — for every religious person in the US to work for a religiously-affiliated organization. The tension that arises when people want to express their religion in the workplace will inevitably continue to vex employers.

In some cases, the ability to express one’s religion at work might be a bonus but not necessarily a dealbreaker. The JPMorgan exec, for example, left to start his own boutique firm but said religion didn’t play into his decision.

When asked whether he put up a fight when his prayer group was disbanded or brought this incident up as a discriminatory practice, the former executive said, rather nonchalantly, no: “The group within JPMorgan was great, but I had plenty of other opportunities for fellowship.”

For those whose faith requires prayer multiple times a day, it’s simply not feasible to separate religion and work. But other employees might find it makes life easier to check their religious practice at the door to their offices — and find other opportunities for religious fellowship.

Melody Hahm is a reporter at Yahoo Finance. Read more of her work:

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