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Reasonable Accommodations: What Can They Do for Your Organization?

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Wal-Mart settled a lawsuit filed by an employee whose request to have Sabbath off was not accommodated. It would cost them $70,000 to compensate the Seattle employee and make remedies for their action. For a company with annual sales of $405 billion in 2010, this settlement seems insignificant. However, what large corporations like Wal-Mart fail to see is a greater non-quantifiable loss to their business from these kinds of suits.

The loss may be in sales from customers who sympathize with the employee and hence would refrain from doing business with the retail giant. Perhaps the greater loss is in the productivity of current employees who feel that their religious values don't mean much to their employer and fail to put in their best.

If these losses are not quantifiable, so how can we determine their worth?

We can understand this by looking at Gallup's employee engagement study. An independent analysis of Question 5 and 6 from the 12 question survey proposes the question: Is my basic value system in line with that of the organization I work for?

5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?

6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?

Actively disengaged employees will answer "No" to these questions. Gallup reports that employees described as such "erode an organization's bottom line while breaking the spirits of colleagues in the process. Within the U.S. workforce, Gallup estimates this cost to be more than $300 billion in lost productivity alone." (Read about the study here.)

Corporations are satisfied with making profit but smart corporations are focused on maximizing that profit. It is a constant struggle to make employees happy while simultaneously making customers happy. Smart businessmen don't compromise on either and they give both parties what is due. They recognize a fundamental principle in business that your organization is only as great as your weakest employee. The growth of your organization is dependent on the development of your employees, every last one of them.

Research by Gallup and others shows that engaged employees are more productive. They are more profitable, more customer-focused, safer, and more likely to withstand temptations to leave. The best-performing companies know that an employee engagement improvement strategy linked to the achievement of corporate goals will help them win in the marketplace.

So how do you engage your employees?

Allow me say here that to a organization, an employee is basically a machine with emotions. He/she is a tool to get the job done except that he/she comes with an added package - a system of values that the organization must be willing to work with. You engage your employees by aligning their values with the values of your organization, or perhaps vice versa.

Many organizations claim to be Equal Opportunity Employers (EOE), listing a set of non-discriminatory criteria at the end of a job description. The understanding is that these demographics should not impede an employee's ability to fulfill the tasks related to the job. They sometimes fail to realize that people's values are shaped by their age, gender, religion and race to mention a few. The task might be the same but based on their values, every employee individualizes the way they go about performing the tasks required of their job.

Furthermore, many employers fail by limiting the EOE status only to the initial employment phase. The attitude is that of "we do not discriminate when it comes to giving you the job but once we put you under payroll, provisions catered for by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 cease to matter." Giving employees reasonable religious accommodations are not only the law but by upholding their values, it improves their productivity and ultimately that of the organization.

What if Wal-Mart specifically called itself a religious friendly organization, how would that benefit them?

In the past, the image of Wal-Mart has suffered moral accusations about the source of their products. Cheap merchandise at Wal-Mart has become synonymous with sweatshops in Asia. The company has also suffered accusations of gender and race discrimination of its employees. As a result, they have conveniently lost some customers, including my friend until her old parents decided to transfer their prescriptions to Wal-Mart pharmacy and the economy took its toll on her pocket book. Let's face it, for most of us, the natural default is to shop for cheap.

Because of this competitive advantage, it behooves Wal-Mart to seek ways to improve its image with its millions of customers. Wal-Mart recently started to sell fruits and vegetables after we tried to pin the obesity epidemic on many of their cheap carb-rich calorie-dense nutrient-starved processed foods. Although it hurt many local produce stores, it was a profitable business move.

So, how can corporations like Wal-Mart rise from good to great?

Yes, in my opinion, they are not there yet. Frequent discriminatory suits have no business with great corporations. Wal-Mart will benefit from focusing on employees as well and not just customers. Employee wellness programs need to grow to include intangibles such as value systems and not just perks for things such as gym memberships. In this particular case, granting reasonable accommodations -- inviting religious values to have a healthy relationship with the workplace -- may be well worth it.

Gallup maintains that "In the best organizations, engagement is more than a human resources initiative -- it is a strategic foundation for the way they do business."

Yes, it is difficult and perhaps impossible to honor every possible religious accommodation that employees ask for, many will take advantage of this. However, "reasonable accommodation" allows the employer to express Title VII in a way that is mutually beneficial to them, their employees and their customers.

So, what is the opportunity cost of these accommodations?

It is easy to be fooled by a seemingly direct correlation. Less employee days means less productivity. "If my employee can't work certain hours or certain days, I have to hire a replacement or an extra employee, I have to incur an extra cost!"

This may not necessarily be the case. Perhaps religious accommodations can be negotiated during the hiring process. Employees can be asked, "Do you foresee having to take any time off that is not already provided for in the current company calendar or your work schedule?" If that is too late at this time, employees need to be proactive by informing their superiors of the need for time off as soon as they are aware of it. They must be ready to work hand in hand with their supervisors to ensure that productivity is not hindered by their absence.

Organizations will find that many employees are happy to work a weekend to make up for a day off. Some are willing to come in earlier or stay late to catch up on missed work. There is always a way around it as long as both parties are willing to be reasonable.

So, what about employers who have no religious affiliation, why must they accommodate religious people and their values?

The interesting thing is that organizations can support the values of their employees and possibly profit from it. A while ago, Abercrombie and Fitch fired a Muslim girl from one of their stores in California for wearing the Hijab, or Muslim headscarf. Maybe the company could have embraced that opportunity and launched a line of fashionable head scarves, a niche no popular clothes retailer has claimed as of yet. Now let's talk about lost business opportunities.

When you don't respect the values of your employees, you either loose them or kill their potential to be super productive. Wal-Mart can be designated as a religiously friendly organization and I can count 10 of my relatives who would start shopping at Wal-Mart despite their disdain for anything that starts with the prefix "Wall." The notoriety of Wall Street has only continued to grow with the occupy movement spreading all over the world.

Perhaps what employers need is a guide to help them understand what constitutes reasonable accommodations and how to include the embracement of their employees' values into the framework of the organization?

Ajarat Bada is the Director of the Blueprint Initiative. The goal of the Blueprint Initiative is to provide a framework for Academia, Media, Global Businesses and Governments to harness the potential of religious diversity to increase development.

The Blueprint Initiative is a project of the Missing Millennium Development Goal (Missing MDG). The goal of the Missing MDG is to create awareness about the opportunity cost of religiously motivated violence -- a loss on the economic and human potential that would otherwise aid development.