Religion in the workplace: Good for business or prime for pitfalls?

REGION – In this age of political correctness, when a co-worker says "bless you" on the job, it's customary to assume someone must have sneezed.

That is unless the co-worker is one of a slew of local professionals who have made it their business to represent a higher calling, whether on the job or not.

Some choose to conduct business while imparting their religious beliefs through actions and demeanor alone. Others actually do advertise their faith right alongside the business.

Doyle Berg, Jr., whose family owns Berg Well Drilling out of Lake Ann, said the company includes the Biblical reference to John 4:14 in ads because it is a "very meaningful" verse to the family and rife with imagery of water.

Also, "because we wanted to bring our faith to the front of our business," Berg said. "We're Christian people, and we want people to know that."

However, they don't "go around preaching," said Berg, who also serves as pastor for Christ Community Church in Traverse City. Most often the ad simply sparks interesting conversation with clients, he said, and he's never known anyone to be converted or even go to church because of it.

All-in-all Berg said the effect of the ad has been "mostly positive."

"I feel that it's benefited our business actually," Berg said. "People will say, 'Well, we called you specifically because you had the scripture ad.'"

Jerry Klinetop, who owns the northern Michigan plumbing company All Rooter with his wife, Barbara, also receives phone calls in response to the phrase "Jesus is Lord" and a reference to Isaiah 55 in ads.

Some people call Klinetop just to quiz him on his knowledge of Isaiah. Other times he gets calls from people of other religions who just want to debate.

"I have great opportunities to witness my faith," Klinetop said. "Somewhere, somebody always asks me about the passage."

His inspiration to bring religion into the forefront of his business came from a former Traverse City flower shop owner who also promoted that she was a Christian. "She just looked at her job with great joy," Klinetop said, "and I just had to have that."

He said he knows countless other business professionals in the area who "wear their faith on their sleeves."

"There's just tons of us out there," Klinetop said.

Marketing expert Mike Kent says highlighting religious beliefs as part of a business is a "bombshell" that can help a business or hurt a business. People who share similar beliefs may view the practice positively, while others might think it disingenuous, he said.

Kent works with clients who struggle to create a faith-friendly atmosphere at the workplace without alienating workers who don't openly worship. He said an air of openness about faith is "not something everyone is going to accept."

Veritas Investment Management in Traverse City does integrate religious beliefs into the workplace, though in a more demure fashion. President Brian Ursu said they don't feel comfortable advertising as a Christian company, but they don't hide it, either.

Everyone who works at Veritas is Catholic, Ursu said, and they hold regular prayer meetings at the office. Even the company's name is spiritually inspired: Veritas, which means "truth" in Latin, comes from the encyclical Veritas Splendor by Pope John Paul II.

There is also a spiritual element to Ursu's work itself, which includes advising clients how to make socially responsible investments. This requires him to prompt clients to examine their values and core beliefs, which often come from spirituality, he said.

These conversations create an air of openness about devotion that Dave Belknap, manager of Rainbow Bookstore in Traverse City, can relate to.

"We do get the opportunity to be very open about our faith in the process of serving our customers," Belknap said. "In this environment, because we are religious-based or faith-based, we do have a greater opportunity to express things that might be frowned upon or taboo in other settings."

Laura Mitchell, chairperson of marketing and public relations for the Traverse Area Human Resources Association, said companies that allow employees to use workplace facilities for religious purposes such as prayer meetings, for example, must make sure that employees of other faiths are treated equally.

"Since religious discrimination is illegal in Michigan, an employer who opens this up to one group would likely have to accommodate all others," Mitchell said.

However, she said, an employer is not legally obligated to honor a request to use a room or meeting place to hold a religious meeting. The law does require companies to accommodate religion in other ways, such as to honor a work schedule change for outside religious services.

Rainbow Bookstore customers respond positively to the ministering and prayer that staff members often share with those who request it, Belknap said, and they know that it goes beyond staff trying to sell the latest and greatest product.

"Our conduct should emanate what we say we are," Belknap said.

Pastor Nick Twomey of Bay Pointe Community Church in Long Lake Township echoes that sentiment when speaking of Krissie's Created Gems and Fine Accessories, a Traverse City establishment that he co-owns.

Krissie's owners run the business with "the highest level of ethics," Twomey said, even though they don't advertise any Christian affiliation.

"When your faith is real it should permeate every area of your life," Twomey said.

For example, customers receive the best possible service because they "matter to God and so they ought to matter to us," he said.

Twomey said they strive to handle conflict respectfully, because he's seen people put fish symbols in the window of a business but still treat customers horribly. The owners also stay true to their word…if they say a check is in the mail, it's really in the mail, he said.

Finally, they conduct the business with integrity by not cheating on taxes or fudging numbers because it's the right thing to do and not because they might get in trouble.

In fact, Twomey said the idea of blending one's religion with one's occupation ought to be a "really silly" concept.

Faith is "just who you are," Twomey said, "so you can't keep it out of your business world anymore than you can keep it out of your marriage." BN