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Starting Religious Employee-Resource Groups

Six years ago, Aetna Chief Diversity Officer Raymond Arroyo started pitching the idea of faith-based employee-resource groups to his company leadership. But the organization, like many others, was nervous, especially those in HR and the legal department. 

“It was perceived as risky—not something corporate America has embraced fully,” Arroyo recalls. “There was concern that there would be disruption in the workplace and the feeling that if we supported some groups, others would object.”

In December 2009, Arroyo learned that Aetna was about to launch its first faith-based employee-resource groups and expected at least one to start in 2010. There was interest from Christians about starting a group, as well as a couple of Jewish employees. Aetna is No. 19 on The 2011 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list.

“I maintained that this a business-case issue,” Arroyo says. “If you align it with our values, then you don’t have anything to worry about.”

It also helped that Aetna had matured in its diversity effort and has been using its very strong employee groups to help with business goals (and Aetna has cutting-edge groups, including a teleworkers network and a young professionals group).

So how did Arroyo do this? First, he researched other companies that have strong models of faith-based employee groups, such as American Express. He also talked with companies known for their strong moral compasses, such as Johnson & Johnson.

Arroyo has an employee in the Office of Diversity whose job is managing the employee-resource groups. The health-insurance company increasingly has worked with religious organizations to sell its products, such as Esperanza USA in Philadelphia, the largest Latino organization of Christian churches.

Aetna requires that at least 10 employees sign up before a group can start and a charter has to be approved, showing that the group’s goals align with the company’s business focus. The group also has to have an executive sponsor who is a senior manager. The group must be inclusive—anyone can join, regardless of whether they are actually affiliated with the group represented.

Two Models

More than a quarter of DiversityInc Top 50 companies report some interest in faith-based employee groups, but only a handful of companies have successfully instituted them. Two companies that do this best, albeit very differently, are strong>AMERICAN EXPRESS (No. 13) and Ford Motor Co. (No. 47).

The American Express model, which Arroyo followed, allows different faith-based groups to be created. The Ford model creates one larger inter-faith group, which covers all religions.

American Express has three faith-based networks: SALT, the Christian network; CHAI, the Jewish network; and PEACE, the Muslim network. The groups are open to everyone and have senior-level sponsors.

Kerrie Peraino, senior vice president of international human resources and global employee relations at American Express, discussed the importance of aligning the groups with corporate values. “There must be an environment where personal accountability and integrity permeate through every action and transaction. When you start with a work culture that is inquisitive and values alignment, there’s more room for various beliefs to be expressed and constructively contribute to employees and business success,” she wrote in an issue of DiversityInc magazine.

The groups’ primary purpose at American Express is to educate and train employees about religious diversity, help with recruitment and increase employee engagement.

Peraino cited examples of how these groups meet their goals. SALT, which has seven chapters in the United States and one in Canada, aligns Christian principles, such as excellence, integrity, honesty and personal commitment, to corporate values. CHAI, which has three chapters in the United States, hosts annual events tied to Jewish holidays and many educational sessions. PEACE, which has two chapters, hosts lunch-and-learn educational events and participates in community activities.

Ford’s Interfaith Network (FIN), which started 10 years ago, is a very different model. It is one of 11 company-approved employee groups. Its board members represent eight faiths, but all are welcome to join. The eight are: Buddhism, Catholicism, Judaism, Evangelical Christian, Islam, Hinduism, Orthodox Christianity and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. There are also “Other Affiliates”: Asatru, Baha’i, Seventh-Day Adventists, Humanism, Sikh, Jainism, Spiritism, Paganism, Unitarian, Zoroastrianism and Universalists.

One of FIN’s key accomplishments is its educational and communications effort. The network sends its “Insights & Inspirations” e-mail to more than 3,500 employees, as well as retirees and community members globally, says Allison Trawick, global manager of the office of diversity and inclusion. FIN also sponsors community events, including a Dearborn, Mich., Eid al-Adha event, National Day of Prayer commemorations, and interfaith events, including participation in a global nonviolence conference.

Lunchtime study groups, discussions of appropriate food with Sodexo (No. 2), encouragement of flexible hours, and discussions on appropriate clothing are also part of FIN’s goals.

1 Comment

  • What a wonderful idea. It appears to not only give employees freedom of expression about their beliefs, opinions, and thoughts, it further serves to create an atmosphere of inclusiveness where everyone is free to be who they are and express what they feel. This kind of environment certainly adds to the productivity, wholesome and healthy attitudes of employees who are the people who really spread the mission of the organization or business, which means that it is a win-win situation for all. Good job employers!

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