Jews report less workplace discrimination

NEW YORK, Dec. 14 (JTA) — Religious discrimination in the workplace may be less of a problem for Jews than for other religious minorities, according to a new nationwide study.

Of the nearly 675 people surveyed — most of whom are affiliated with one of five religious minorities in the United States — 66 percent said that some form of specific discriminatory behavior based on religion had occurred at their workplace, and one in five had either experienced religious discrimination themselves or knew of a coworker who did.

Two-thirds of all respondents to the study, which was released Tuesday by the New York-based Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, reported being troubled or at least somewhat concerned about religious discrimination in the workplace.

But Jewish respondents reported the lowest degree of discrimination — even lower than Christians — and the highest level of comfort on the job.

It is not clear from the study how many of those Jews surveyed are observant Jews.

Part of the reason for these findings is that most Jews in America come from families that have been living here for at least two generations, Georgette Bennett, the president of the 7-year-old Tanenbaum Center, explained at a news conference on Tuesday.

“Jews have been here longer than a great percentage of the sample,” of which 42 percent were foreign born, “and they tend to be assimilated into the larger culture,” Bennett said.

In the study, American-born workers were more comfortable on the job than foreign-born workers.

Indeed, the study grew out of an awareness that as more immigrants come to the United States from Asia and the Pacific Islands, India, Pakistan and Africa, the growing presence of minority religions is changing the face of the contemporary workplace.

The exploratory study conducted telephone interviews in the spring of 1999 among a sample designed to overrepresent five religious minorities in the United States: Judaism (102 people), Islam (102), Hinduism (107), Buddhism (103) and Shintoism (12).

Those questioned also included 188 Christians and 28 people who did not identify with any of the above-mentioned religions.

Its first question begins with the paragraph: “Right now the look of the American worker is very different from what it was 20 years ago. As we approach the new millennium, we must try to have a workplace where people of all different backgrounds are treated the same, no matter what their gender, race, age or religion happens to be.”

The study comes as legislators from both parties, led by Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.), have been working to enact the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which has been a special lobbying effort of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs.

The act would serve as an amendment to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and would require a private employer to “reasonably accommodate” the religious needs of an employee unless doing so would impose “undue hardship” on the employer.

The study also comes at a time when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports a 28 percent increase in religiously based employment discrimination charges since 1992.

According to one report, the commission received 440 complaints in 1998 from Muslims, who with an estimated 6 million adherents, make up the second-largest religious group in America.

To test its hypothesis that the problem is a serious one, the Tanenbaum Center launched what it says is “the first major study on the impact of religious discrimination in the American workplace.”

Respondents were questioned about their workplace experience on a number of issues: comfort level; employers’ response to complaints of religious bias; company policies regarding religious observance and religious discrimination; treatment by fellow employees and its effect on job performance; and concerns about religious and racial bias in the workplace in general.

The interviewees were also questioned on specific examples of discriminatory behavior, such as ridicule or vandalism. But it also covered more personal matters, such as employees being told they cannot wear facial hair or head coverings, even if it is for religious reasons, or employees being denied the right to take time off work for prayer or for religious holidays.

Other serious examples included employees being passed over for promotions because of clothing that expresses their particular faith or dismissed for expressing their religious faith through the way they dress.

According to the study, almost half of those who reported experiencing religious discrimination in the workplace said their performance was affected and nearly as many said they had thought of quitting as a result.

“These are people employers are desperate to hold on to in this tight job market,” Bennett said. Many of those surveyed are high-level professionals, such as computer technicians.

Bennett warned that the study’s results cannot be generalized for the population at large, but can be seen as strong indicators of the direction the country’s workforce is heading.

The Tanenbaum Center plans to conduct further studies that delve into specific issues raised by the study and that examine a wider range of religious groups and socioeconomic levels.

For now, the center is recommending that companies engage in more diversity training to sensitize management and workers to employees’ religious requirements and to correct stereotypes.

Moreover, the center suggests that companies clearly state and implement policies on religious bias to diminish the perception that discriminatory behaviors are acceptable and to assist members of religious minorities fully exercise their rights.

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