Brazilian meatpacker JBS is only the latest company to walk into the meatgrinder (no pun intended) that is diversity in the workplace today. The EEOC ruled recently that JBS had violated the civil rights of its Somali Muslim employees when they allegedly walked off the job because the company had rescinded its agreement to make accommodation for prayer during Ramadan.  Apparently, non-Muslim employees complained about the plan.  Workplace conflicts of this kind have a long history.  In the early days of employee bulletin boards, evangelical Christians at a global accounting firm tried to force the GLBT forum off the firm’s intranet.  At a Southern law firm, Confederate flag screensavers were a contentious issue.

Culture conflicts of this kind will inevitably increase as ethnic and religious diversity in the workforce increases, leading to more of these “lose-lose” situations for corporate decision-makers.  If, as some commentators believe, the EEOC is becoming more rigorous in enforcement, the penalties for getting these issues wrong can only increase as well.

What level of workplace accommodation for religious beliefs is appropriate?  Companies in different industries will arrive at distinct solutions, but the JBS case makes one thing clear: having workplace policies that are clearly communicated and consistently applied will be a crucial tool, whether these policies are liberal or not.  Scenario planning around potential culture clashes is a good place to start.


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