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ALL EMPLOYERS SHOULD ADDRESS DIVERSITY OF RELIGIONS IN WORKPLACE

When the Jewish high holiday period begins at sundown on Friday, Mark Fields wants to be at home, not work.

The 25-year-old graduate student, who is a part-time employee at the local medical lab, is keeping his fingers crossed his supervisor will grant this request to have off Friday evening, and Saturday, to observe Rosh Hashanah, a religious holiday marking the Jewish New Year.

"Because I only work part time, usually weekend shifts, I feel a little guilty asking," Fields said. "I'm still waiting for the schedule to be posted, but my boss seems to understand this is important to me."

The upcoming 10-day Jewish holiday period, which starts with Rosh Hashanah and culminates with Yom Kippur, can act as a barometer of workplace religious tolerance, according to Marlene Glickman, retired executive director of the Western New York chapter of the American Jewish Committee. Glickman said the yearly fall observances, and Passover, which occurs in the spring, often pit the dominant Christian calendar against the Jewish calendar.

"In most places of work, you'd never have to go to your boss to ask off for Christmas or Easter. The major Christian holidays are a structural part of the workplace calendar," Glickman said. "But if you don't happen to be Christian, you are automatically put in the uncomfortable postion of having to ask for something special. At best you feel different, at worst, ostracized."

Shehnaz Engineer faces a similar situation when the Muslim holy month of Ramadan approaches. While the Tops Markets executive has met with nothing but understanding and acceptance of her religious practices from her superiors, she still wrestles with how to satisfy both her religious obligations and work duties.

While she felt it was appropriate to ask for time off to make a faith-required pilgrimage to Mecca a few months after being hired, a request that was granted without hassle, she has not asked her employer for other things, such as a venue for her to make an afternoon prayer offering. Instead, she bends the rules a bit, and performs that Muslim ritual on her lunch hour, or as soon as she gets home from work.

"During Ramadan, there are certain special days I don't come to work, and a few others when I leave early to be home by sunset," Engineer said. "But I feel hesitant to leave early on all the days I should. I still have the idea in me, and it's something I struggle with, but I've decided to make some compromises."

Issues relating to work and religion are of growing concern in the American workplace due to the evolving nature of religion in the U.S. While Christianity remains far and away the dominant religion in this country, Muslims are about to overtake Jews for the No. 2 spot, with several other religious groups expanding their ranks.

"We are no longer the mono-cultural, mono-religious country we once were, and either are the places we work," said Mauricio Velasquez, president of The Diversity Training Group, of Herndon, Va. "Unfortunately, a lot of companies haven't figured that out yet, and probably won't until a worker sues them."

Religious discrimination claims are among the fastest growing category of complaints filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Some 1,811 such claims were filed with the agency in 1999, up from 1,584 in the prior year.

Under a 1972 amendment to the Civil Rights Act, employers are required to make "reasonable accommodations to their employees' religious observations." It's a rather vague edict that has led to a hodge-podge of workplace policies, according to Velasquez.

"We are seeing some companies, especially the larger corporations, go all out to make sure they are doing the right things to address religious diversity," he said. "But that said, we have a long, long way to go."

Employers and employees are quickly learning that it takes more than adding a few religious holidays to the company calendar to set things right. The universe of employer considerations can potentially includes everything from food handling practices and daily menu choices in the company cafeteria, to dress code exemptions to allow the wearing of turbans, head scarves and other religion-mandated clothing, to establishment of private areas where workers can have privacy to offer prayers.

Christian workers are also testing the boundaries of the federal guidelines, forcing their bosses to develop policies that address such topics as display of Bibles and crosses, workplace scripture reading groups and wearing of clothing that features religious slogans.

Dr. Khalid Qazi, chief of medicine at Buffalo's Sisters Hospital and president of the Western New York chapter of the American Muslim Council, said while different companies will ultimately find different solutions for their staffs, the key is to bring the issues out in the open.

"Are there increased reports of religious discrimination? Yes. But I think it has more to do with awareness of religious rights than it does with the prevalence of discrimination," Qazi said.

"In a majority of cases, the problem is ignorance, not deliberate discrimination. Most of the time reasonable people are able to come to reasonable solutions."

Qazi can speak from personal experience. For 25 years he's been able to balance his Muslim faith with those of the Catholic hospital he oversees. That melting pot of faiths was further spiced when Qazi selected a Jewish physician as his second-in-command.

"This is quite an American story over here. Everyone is welcome. We're proof that diversity can be practiced very successfully," he said.

The current climate of corporate mergers and acquisitions is another factor forcing the religious diversity issue into the light. Prevailing cultures and practices of merger partners, sometimes several continents away, are having interesting impacts.

Locally, the former Marine Midland Bank's assimilation into global banking parent, London-based HSBC, is a prime example. Spokeswoman Kathy Rizzo Young said the Buffalo-based bank's already liberal policies on religion have been further broadened by its link to a diverse global work force.

For example, a newly-revised leave policy provides up to five days of bereavement leave, instead of the standard three days, to better accommodate Jewish staffers who practice the week-long Shiva mourning ritual.

"We have so many people, from so many cultures, we're like a mini-United Nations," Young said. The bank has implemented company-wide, required training in cultural and religious diversity. The 'valuing diversity' course is mandatory for every employee with officer status, a rank that includes more than one-third of HSBC's tens of thousands of workers worldwide.

But not all companies are eager to throw open the doors to a blend of cultures and religions. There are more than a few tales of local workplace discrimination that go untold because the victims don't want to go public. Among those which have come to the attention of local religious leaders are:

A Muslim woman woman who answered a "Help Wanted" ad, but was told there were no positions open when she arrived wearing a traditional hijab (head scarf).

An Orthodox Jewish doctor who left his position at a local hospital when his supervisor repeatedly ignored his requests to have the Sabbath off.

A Jehovah's Witness who was passed over for several promotions after she declined to participate in the office Birthday Club.

The federal rules against religious discrimination in the workplace notwithstanding, some employees have developed their own litmus tests to determine a company's actual flexibility. A local Muslim man, who asked not to be identified, said after a couple of negative workplace experiences, he now makes his religious needs known at the initial job interview.

"If I see that look of shock and horror, I won't even go back for a second interview. I know I won't fit in," he said.

A Jewish lawyer said he used to scout out prospective employers by doing what he termed "a head count."

"I'd hang around an office at lunch time, or at the end of the day, and see if there was anybody else like me. If I spotted a couple of yarmulkes, I'd send a resume."

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