Never Again: How Workplaces Are Impacted By and Responding To Anti-Semitism

By Mark Fowler and Joyce Dubensky,Tanenbaum

With more than 20 years of experience, Tanenbaum and its Corporate Membership Program provide global companies, government agencies, and international non-profits representing 4 million employees with practical programs and solutions that help them function in a religiously inclusive manner.

From events in Charlottesville and Pittsburgh, to France and Argentina—anti-Semitism is thriving and it’s affecting people…including when they’re at work. In recent weeks, France has experienced a series of

high-profile anti-Semitic attacks, Argentina’s chief rabbi was assaulted and anti-Semitic attacks were linked to rising hate crimes in New York. Germany reported a 10 percent jump in anti-Semitic hate crimes in 2018. Meanwhile, there is heightened fear in the U.S. of another Tree of Life Synagogue attack, and heated debates over what is—and is not— anti-Semitism.

These incidents affect people deeply, and play out at work. Last year alone, reported cases reflected a range of anti-Semitic incidents.

  • In January 2018, four flight attendants filed a lawsuit accusing Delta Airlines of “discriminating” against Jewish people; they claimed they had heard senior officials say Jewish and Israeli employees and passengers “cannot be trusted, are aggressive and inappropriate, and engage in what they deemed to be ‘strange behaviors by conducting prayers on the flight and requiring special dietary accommodations (Kosher meals).”
  • Only a few months later, a New Jersey Township Committee agreed to pay $1.25 million to a former employee who complained that co-workers repeatedly made anti-Semitic comments and placed Nazi literature on his desk.
  • In August 2018, a case was brought against Louisiana College for refusing to hire a football coach because of his “Jewish blood.”
  • And in November 2018, Jewish police officers in the Philadelphia Police Department filed a federal discrimination lawsuit claiming they were subjected to anti-Semitism, and ethnic and religious discrimination in the workplace when they found the anti-Semitic symbol “SS” scratched into their locker and the words “Hebrew Hammer” scrawled across the hood of their patrol car.

In fact, 70 percent of American workers say they have the most contact with people from other beliefs and identities at their workplace. So it’s not surprising that more than one-third of workers report personally experiencing or witnessing some form of religious bigotry or non-accommodation at work. For Jewish people, this can look like swastikas painted in cubicles, a devout Christian trying to save a Jew by trying to convert them, or a non-accommodation like being at a required offsite meeting and unable to eat because kosher food is not provided.

After 20 years of working with multinational companies to address religious diversity, Tanenbaum’s seen its fair share of anti-Semitism as well as Islamophobia, tensions between believers and nonbelievers, bias toward Christians, and more. We’ve learned that there is significant overlap in how religious bigotry shows up at work, and that’s why we recommend similar though customized approaches for addressing all forms of religious bigotry at work, including anti-Semitism.

Tanenbaum encourages companies to be pro-active in addressing religious discrimination and facilitating accommodation. Not only does this prepare the company for a potential “issue,” but it  benefits both the company and its employees. Company values and mission statements that commit to diversity, equity and inclusion are a place to start.  Concrete policies, building new norms and enhancing communications      follow.

Clear policies are essential in personnel manuals. Anti-harassment policies can address swastikas, while anti-proselytizing policies can cover conversion conversations by/among any employee. But daily issues requiring accommodations also need attention. Consider a meeting that’s scheduled for a winter Friday at 4:00 p.m., and an observant Jew is required to attend, even though faith requires the person to be home before sundown in observance of Shabbat. Tanenbaum recommends approaching this matter with an Accommodation Mindset®.

We offer Eight Steps to the Accommodation Mindset®, a resource for managers about handling such situations by assessing them on a case-by-case basis and exploring what’s possible given competing realities, including the amount of work involved, scheduling challenges for all participants, possibilities for flexibility, etc. Perhaps the meeting could start earlier, or the Jewish employee could Skype/Zoom in from home before sunset. When a company has clear polices in place that have been clearly communicated, employees are twice as likely to report they are happy with their current job. This also creates a more open environment, which can make it more likely that they’ll share their religious needs with their supervisors. More than 25 percent of employees who have witnessed or experienced non-accommodation in the workplace did not report it to human resources or to a manager.

Accompanying communication about accommodations can be critical for implementing them—otherwise, unfamiliarity with a colleague’s religious practices may trigger resentment. Co-workers might assume that their Jewish colleague is getting special treatment, even though the religious accommodation is comparable to a Christian taking time for Ash Wednesday.

Other types of communiques are also important in institutionalizing multi-belief inclusion. Regular information pieces on different religious traditions’ celebrations can build respectful curiosity and company responses in moments of shock and tragedy can help create community. In the immediate aftermath of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, Accenture’s Chief Leadership and Human Resources Officer Ellyn Shook shared a personal and passionate statement about the impact the tragedy had on her, and unequivocally affirmed Accenture’s commitment to being a workplace where people “…WILL continue to bring our Faith beliefs into the workplace….”  Tanenbaum partners with corporate members on such communications. For example, in the wake of the Tree of Life Synagogue tragedy, Accenture turned to Tanenbaum’s materials and quoted us in their company statement for employees.

Not being proactive can have consequences—it can hurt morale when people feel they have to hide their religion at work, or in applying for a job. This may also affect a company’s reputation and talent acquisition efforts. “I know a star candidate who received a management job offer from a global financial services company,” Tanenbaum CEO Joyce Dubensky recalls. “But she went to a competitor that was known to be more hijab-friendly.” [BBC] Using Tanenbaum’s 10 Bias Danger Signs can help companies avoid these outcomes. In this resource, we highlight obvious and subtle ways in which religion shows up at work for Jewish people and employees of all faith traditions. It includes a range of issues such as a lack of space for required prayer, ridicule, socializing, and the inability to take off to observe one’s holidays.

The next step for companies to concertedly address religion at work—including anti-Semitism’s corrosive effects—is the Corporate Religious Diversity Assessment (CRDA), a tool Tanenbaum created in conjunction with the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation. The CRDA allows companies to internally self-assess their religious diversity efforts and determine opportunities for improvement and innovation.

History teaches us that anti-Semitism, and all forms of religious bigotry, are not going away any time soon. So, companies have work to do. If done thoroughly and sensitively, corporate communications, religious accommodations and new company norms that reinforce Respectful Communication can truly make a difference. Religion is a powerful force in people’s lives, and workplaces benefit by recognizing and addressing this. Now the only question is, how prepared are companies to do this—and reap the benefits of higher morale, productivity, creativity, and financial growth that can accompany their efforts?

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