Be Careful What You Say “No” To!
Establishing religious affinity groups in the workplace is the kind of activity many firms and corporations might shy away from, fearing possible backlash and division. But Texas Instruments (TI) has been moving in the opposite direction of most companies by fully embracing religious affinity groups. TI’s Director of Diversity, Terry Howard , says in the many years he’s worked in diversity, working with TI’s religious affinity groups has been one of the most rewarding journeys he’s ever been on – personally and professionally .
What TI has managed to do in such a short period of time is literally “put a face” on religion in the workplace, and TI’s pioneering work in this field has not gone unnoticed nationally. Terry proudly cites Fortune Magazine’s inclusion of Texas Instruments’ Christian Values and Muslim Initiatives in last year’s “Best Places to Work” issue, and the fact that TI was featured in “ Across The Board” by the Conference Board, New York, in a lead article on “Faith in The Workplace.” And, of special interest to HR professionals, Texas Instruments was just featured in the June 2006 SHRM HR Magazine (Vol. 51, No. 6) “ Employee Networks” by Jennifer Taylor Arnold , discussing the value of affinity groups in building cultures of inclusion and business success.
I set out to understand more about TI’s approach and how their religious affinity groups have managed to go beyond “tolerated” or “allowed”, to being fully included, and mutually supportive across the wide range of diversity at Texas Instruments.
Howard filled me in recently at a local Starbucks, his favorite watering hole. He got straight to the point by stressing that organizations need to rethink what they say “no” to regarding diversity issues these days.
“I’m in the business of inclusion, not exclusion,” he said. “I suggest that we get out of the business of ‘picking and choosing’ diversities in the workplace based on our comfort level because, in the end, exclusion is just bad business.”
Terry is quick to say that TI’s sanctioning its Christian Values and Muslim affinity groups were two of the most meaningful things to happen during his tenure at Texas Instruments . “Quite honestly, our Christian Values Initiative gave me an unexpected opportunity to stretch my own comfort zone and my tolerance for risk,” he said. Howard has a tough time containing himself when he talks about how TI’s strong top management support and backing helped him lead the charge in integrating its two religious affinity groups into its culture. “The leadership team here, particularly my immediate management chain, has been incredibly supportive . ” Terry also mentioned early overtures on the part of Jewish employees. And, while thus far they have not formed an affinity group – Terry says he would readily welcome any opportunity to explore the addition of other religious affinity groups.
The faith in the workplace “movement” at TI also opened doors for Terry in forging new relationships. “One of the greatest people I’ve ever met in my life, barring none, is a six foot eleven inch white guy by the name of Kent Johnson,” said Terry. Johnson, a senior attorney at TI led the effort to get the Christian Values Initiative recognized at TI .
“My respect for Kent grew in leaps in bounds as I watched him marshal this through amid some skepticism,” reported Howard. “To me, Kent is one of the all time great visionaries and I don’t mind saying that I truly love the guy.”
Johnson, who ended up chairing the Texas Instruments’ Diversity Network comprising over 15 different affinity groups, was TI’s recipient of the 2005 diversity “Trailblazers” Award and two years ago was recognized as a Diversity Champion by DiversityCentral.com .
Johnson says, “For many people, it’s their religious conviction, more than any other factor, which defines their core identity and their reason for living and working. It is counterproductive to insist, in effect, that talented religious people must conceal the single characteristic of their lives which, to them, means the most. For them, faith is profoundly relevant to the workplace.”
Johnson continued, some people might have predicted increased strife in a workplace when “religion” has been made a permitted topic. But in fact, as a result of this ‘movement,’ great friendships are being forged among co-workers who in a normal workplace – one which sidesteps matters of spirituality and religion – would have remained distant and strained. Deep trust is stifled in an environment where believers’ core identities are off-limits for discussion. The relationships of mutual trust that we forge at work with people who are “not like us” carry great promise. Meaningful trust is made possible in an environment like TI’s, which does not just tolerate faith, but welcomes it.
Under Johnson’s leadership and that of other diversity visionaries, TI’s diversity initiatives are now helping the company grow market share in Latin American and helping TI navigate cultural differences in China and Korea . “Let’s not miss the essential point here,” said Terry. “And that is that our affinity groups are not exclusive and self-serving. Clearly they’ve put the company’s business interests ahead of their own and continue to give their time voluntarily to help TI win in the global marketplace.”
Terry is also quick to talk about Siraj Akhtar , a TI senior design engineer, and the leader of TI’s Muslim group. “Siraj is one of the most eloquent and knowledgeable speakers on issues relating to Islam and Muslims I’ve ever seen,” said Terry. “We need candor and cool heads on these issues during these turbulent times and it doesn’t get any better for us than having Siraj Akhtar and other great leaders in our Muslim community out front on these issues at TI,” said Howard, who beams at how the Christian and Muslim groups collaborated recently. “Several weeks ago, I joined members of our Christian Values and Muslim groups on a visit to the Arapaho Road Baptist Church , and the exchange was outstanding,” he shared. Weeks before that, the groups visited local mosques in the North Texas area. The experience and follow up dialogues were precedent-setting.
TI has set up popular “Serenity Rooms,” to accommodate employees’ need for private space. Available to all in need of a quiet space for study, reflection, prayer or mediation, TI’s “Serenity Rooms” are a direct response to growing religious diversity in its workplace.
“Many people of faith may need a safe and quiet space in their workplace,” said Howard. “This was brought home to me in a very specific way when I heard that members of our Bangledeshi community were secretly meeting and praying in a nearby park after 9/11. That just blew me away,” he said. “And after I looked at the sheer math of having many of our Muslim employees leaving our locations to get to a nearby mosque to meet their prayer obligations, I didn’t need any more convincing.”
Siraj Akhtar agrees that the 9/11 attacks five years ago had a tremendous impact on the work environment. “After 911 everything changed,” he says. “To be a Muslim living in America became very difficult. This made the work environment very challenging thereby preventing Muslim employees from fully engaging themselves at work. … All of sudden having a Muslim affinity group (we call them diversity initiatives) wasn’t just some exotic concept, it was a necessity. More than ever Muslim employees had to explain what Islam really is and what we stand for. We needed to make our co-workers aware of our faith and our practices and remove the prevalent stereotypes so as to ensure full engagement – on all sides. In the global environment in which we function, TI employees are already heavily exposed to diversity. We realize that only by working with diversity will we be able to increase our global productivity and market share.”
To my last question: Where do you draw the line on religion in the workplace ? Terry did not hesitate. “I think you draw the line on anything that’s exclusive, that shuts anyone out based on their personal differences,” he said. “When people draw the line on diversity, including religious diversity, I start to ask myself if they’re similarly drawing the line on business opportunities, on customers, on innovation, on creativity. The answer to that question should concern all of us.”
Terry continued, “At TI we avoid a “zero-sum” mentality. When people show up at work with a clear sense that they are valuable – and valued – barriers break down, they can move beyond the safe silos of their immediate group and realize opportunities to work with others. Our TI culture simply recognizes personal differences as just another add-on characteristic of people who are smart and talented. If having religious initiatives helps that talent feel more included and fully engaged, then it’s in our competitive interest to support them. If we put our employees’ “diversity” aside, what’s left are some bright, highly educated and extremely talented individuals – ones who have historically and will in the future continue to help TI win in the global marketplace.”
As we walked across the parking lot toward our cars, Terry couldn’t resist getting in a final point. “If you run across any great engineers who happen to be people of faith, please send them my way. Our message is clear: it is your talent and brainpower we desire at Texas Instruments. And if faith is a part of your package, that’s perfectly fine; just bring that along as well.”
For a link to the full comments from Kent Johnson and Siraj Akhtar , click here.
Tasnim McCormick Benhalim is the principal of DiversityWealth , a firm dedicated to bringing the benefits of diversity and improved productivity to organizations large and small. “Working through the challenges diversity brings unearths a reservoir of wealth diversity has to offer.” www.DiversityWealth.com