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CAREERS / The Soul at Work

Setting 'Prophet Margins'

As more workers decide to let their spiritual side show, employers are facing new challenges.

April 06, 1998|MICHELLE MALTAIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For most of his life, wearing his yarmulke has not been an issue.

Every morning at 7, Baruch Cohen attends temple down the street from his home. Whenever he appears in court or meets with a client, a black yarmulke is atop his head.

For Cohen, wearing the Jewish skullcap is as natural as wearing a shirt. The yarmulke, he said, is a constant reminder that "there's a God above."

The 35-year-old Los Angeles bankruptcy lawyer said he is descended from 80 generations of rabbis and is fervent about his religious convictions. But as a student at Southwestern Law School, his resolve was challenged.

In his final year, he was granted a job interview that was "light-years ahead" of his class ranking, Cohen said. "Everyone said: 'Don't wear the yarmulke. It will ruin your chances.' "

After much soul-searching, he consulted with his rabbi and received special dispensation to remove the skullcap.

At the interview, he was greeted by a lawyer with a black velvet yarmulke perched neatly on his head, traditional locks tucked out of sight, whose first question was, "Where is your yarmulke?" Cohen said. "I felt like a betrayer."

Since then, he has refused to compromise in observing his Jewish traditions.

As cashiers, board members, janitors and junior partners openly seek balance and purpose in their lives, the business world is becoming less a sanctuary of the secular, according to human resource officers, employees and demographers.

With on-the-job spirituality apparently on the rise, workers seem to be saying there is no distinction between the self and the soul once their shifts begin. Their commitment to their ideologies, religious or otherwise, is full time.

"Lots of people find out that having it all means far more than having something shiny and new parked in the garage," said Richard Bunce, coordinator for Mobilization for the Human Family, a Claremont-based ecumenical nonprofit organization that works with churches to encourage interaction with the community.

This burgeoning awareness of spirituality--or the search for meaning and understanding, as Bunce defines it--"seems a healthy antidote to the materialism that was so strong in the '80s and still is everywhere to be seen." He added that expressing spirituality at work allows people "to be human in the presence of others" and can help build trust among employees.

As business organizations adapt to demographic shifts and diversify their work forces, many employers and employees are encountering challenges in establishing suitable "prophet margins" at work.

From a Jehovah's Witness waitress in Maryland refusing to sing a birthday song because it conflicted with her beliefs to a Roman Catholic in Iowa maintaining that her convictions required her to wear a graphic anti-abortion button, new complications involving spiritual expression have been seeping into the American workplace.

Although most employers have considered, and to some degree planned for, accommodating issues of race, gender and accessibility for the disabled, they haven't prepared for this spiritual renaissance, said Barry Lawrence, spokesman for the Society of Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va.

Employment lawyer Jonathan Segal agreed. "The average employer hasn't thought through how they are going to handle [spiritual diversity]," said Segal, who represents businesses for the law firm Wolf, Block, Schorr & Solis-Cohen in Philadelphia.

Most employers are familiar with laws prohibiting religious discrimination; however, many do not understand that the law also requires that they accommodate religious employees as long as doing so does not place an undue hardship on the business.

"These two [discrimination and reasonable accommodation] often come together in ways employers don't anticipate," Segal said.

"If an employer is very flexible generally, then reasonable accommodation will be broader," he said. That is to say, if an employer has a liberal policy about family issues or allows smokers to take two or three cigarette breaks throughout the day, then that employer should be as accommodating when it comes to spiritual matters.

"Where it becomes more complicated is when someone's religious views or observances become apparent to others," Segal said.

He cited a situation at a service company in the Northeast involving an employee who practiced Wicca, or witchcraft. On her breaks, she was casting spells in the employee lounge, and co-workers said they were uncomfortable. She responded that she was uncomfortable with co-workers reading the Bible at work.

"This becomes an issue of favoring one religion over another," he said. "General discomfort is not a good enough reason." He said he believes the service company has resolved the conflict, since he hasn't heard anything further about it.

"It's harder for companies when it goes into how someone looks or how someone dresses," Segal said.

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