A woman uses her phone in an office building in this illustration photo. (Credit: Toru Hanai/Reuters via CNS.)
CLEVELAND — As the Muslim observance of Ramadan got underway last April in the early days of the pandemic, Yasmin Khaliq was feeling isolated and alone in Dubai where she worked as a marketing director for California-based Equinix, a digital infrastructure company.
Accustomed to breaking the fast after sunset with friends or family was something she always looked forward to, but under Dubai’s government-ordered lockdown, the nightly meal was going to be lonely.
Then a co-worker who is not a Muslim reached out.
That co-worker, located in another country, suggested to Khaliq that they eat together — online, of course.
Khaliq was surprise — and pleased.
“Just by her making that offer really touched my heart,” she said during an online session Feb. 10 of the Second National Faith@Work ERG Conference sponsored by the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation and the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America.
The shared meal became possible primarily because both Equinix employees are part of a new interfaith employee resource group called Faith Connect. It was started by workers and supported by executive management. Khaliq said her non-Muslim colleague learned about the Islamic faith through the group and ultimately offered to share in the Ramadan tradition.
Known in the business world as ERGs, such groups are becoming increasingly popular within corporations, especially those that have a large and diverse workforce spread across multiple offices, in many cases around the world. Their focus can be any type of shared interest: religion or no religion, nationality, sexual orientation, gender, disability, or social and economic concerns.
Corporate executives are finding that ERGs boost employee morale, giving a company a competitive advantage and ultimately strengthening the bottom line.
Participants in prerecorded sessions and live discussions that followed during the conference’s second day focused on ERGs rooted in faith and religion. They offered ideas on how to start an ERG and discussed how the groups raise employee confidence while improving communication and trust.
Employee participation in the 13 ERGs at Texas-based Dell Technologies has resulted in a more inclusive environment as workers come to know each other better, said Shawn Trotter, a company sales vice president.
“Employee satisfaction is off the chart when they are involved in one of these employee resource groups,” Trotter said during a session that focused on ERGs and corporate social responsibility.
Asha George, vice president of global diversity and inclusion at Dell, said that when an ERG is anchored in a company’s goals, it can help people feel respected for who they are because co-workers know each other beyond the everyday demands of the workplace.
Employees don’t have to “badge in and badge out their faith when they come to work,” she said.
About 50,000 employees in 60 countries participate in one of Dell’s ERGs, George said.
“They are really passionate employee networks. If you bring your most passionate members together, you just get a more inclusive environment,” she said.
After hearing presentations about human trafficking, members of the interfaith ERG began taking action to address what is often described as modern-day slavery. Members have raised $30,000 for anti-human trafficking programs in the last two years, George said.
The faith-based group at Equinix is a relatively new undertaking, said Marsie Sweetland, a client executive for the global firm and a Scientologist. It was started after its founders participated in a training session led by the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation.
It is built on three pillars: invite, learn, respect.
D.R. Carlson, manager for global messaging channels for the company and a Christian, said inviting others to join the group has been instrumental in the development of his faith life.
“Our drive is to invite people who believe different things. We’re the only connected group whose basic tenet is that we don’t believe the same thing,” Carlson explained.
“We invite others, to learn what they believe, and in doing so be able to respect what they believe. Not believe what they believe but respect it,” he added.
In a live discussion afterward, the prerecorded session on the Equinix group, attendees recapped experiences in their companies.
“Understanding another point of view can create bridges instead of walls,” said Mario Carpio Leroy, who works in Costa Rica for Intel. “From what I saw, you have more bridges than before.”
Anila Jivanji of American Airlines credited the company for being bold enough to establish Faith Connect. “What you have done is you have given people a road map,” she said. “You have shown the power of diversity in action and dialogue.”
During a keynote address, Sharon Fast Gustafson, general counsel at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, told conference participants that religious nondiscrimination and accommodation are integral to the success of American workplaces.
“Employees are often encouraged, ‘bring your whole self to work,’” Gustafson said. “Religion is for many people an integral part of their identity. But are employees being given a conflicting message that religious expression in the workplace is not welcome?”
She explained that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlines specific protections for employees regarding religion, race, color, sex and national origin.
“Title VII does not just protect popular or majority religions, religions with beliefs we find unoffensive, or those religions that an employer agrees with, or at least understands,” she said. “Title VII protects all religious beliefs, observances and practices. This is America. We get pluralism. We do that here.”
Gustafson urged business leaders to keep such requirements in mind throughout their operations so that employees are not being discriminated against because of their religious beliefs.
“In our pluralistic society, it is critical that we protect employees with widely differing religious faiths and consciences from religious discrimination,” she said. “Nondiscrimination is good for employees and it is good for business.