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Workplace Ecumenism: How Can Employers Draw on Principle of Unity to Build a Better Workplace? Workplace Ecumenism: How Can Employers Draw on Principle of Unity to Build a Better Workplace?

Workplace Ecumenism: How Can Employers Draw on Principle of Unity to Build a Better Workplace?

In the past few years, or even longer, workplaces have struggled with how they should handle social, political, racial and other topics previously thought off limits in the workplace. With an eye towards allowing, and even encouraging, employees to bring their whole selves to work, many employers have inadvertently stepped into a minefield of moral, ethical and legal issues that had not been previously addressed, let alone discussed, in many workplaces. I present this quandary as a positive, not as a negative. I have been thinking about more creative ways to discuss and build better workplaces for many years and really did not come up with anything concrete, until now. To begin, I am an employment lawyer who mostly handles employment litigation matters. In my practice, I confidently estimate that most cases are ultimately resolved via a settlement—i.e., where both sides reach a compromise. The others are resolved via dispositive motions or trial—i.e., with one party winning outright. Between these two scenarios, most parties generally walk away happier when they compromise, not when they lose.

I am a Catholic Christian. I have been wondering of late if there are some principles from my faith that can be used to help form better collegiality and unity in our workplaces. I am not naïve. I suspect that some of you reading this article just rolled your eyes immediately after I mentioned faith. But, please bear with me for a bit longer. The Christian faith, like litigation, incorporates a principle found in settlement, that principle being ecumenism. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the term “ecumenical” as “promoting or tending toward worldwide Christian unity or cooperation.” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops defines ecumenical starting from the Greek work “oikoumene,” meaning “the whole inhabited world,” noting that the promotion of cooperation and unity among Christians is essential to the Christian faith. It is this “unity” that I see as having applications in the workplace.

When employers embrace the “bring your whole self to work” concept, this is valuable because, (a) it is the right thing to do, and (b) it promotes cooperation and unity amongst all employees. In my experience, a focus on inclusiveness does not only extend to perspectives that reflect swings of the political pendulum within the business world. For example, I organized a Day of Reflection for Attorneys Retreat/CLE, which event included talks on the vocation of the lawyer, lawyers as servants of the public good, St. Thomas More, a model of courage, and being prayerful in a busy professional life.

In recent years, many employers have struggled to navigate the minefield created when politics and workplace policies intersect. In 2019, Google employee Kevin Cernekee, accused his employer of firing him for expressing conservative political beliefs at work and claimed that the company fosters a culture of politically-biased bullying. Cernekee, calling himself a whistleblower, filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) against Google. In 2020, apparently in reaction to Cernekee and other similar controversies among its employees, Google put in place a set of community guidelines that discouraged employees from discussing politics on Google’s internal discussion boards and forums. According to a Wall Street Journal article, in September 2020 the NLRB ordered Google to allow employees to debate openly political and workplace issues as part of a settlement of formal complaints like those from Cernekee. 

In other cases this last year, employers have faced the topic of what employees should or should not have or promote on their apparel or facemasks. Although there are situations where complete bans on messaging or language on apparel and facemasks may be legal and reasonable, there exists other situations where the same stands contrary to the protections found in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and/or state law equivalents of the same. Irrespective of the legal issues, all of the employers involved found themselves confronted with serious public relations issues. 

What do these situations have in common? Lack of communication and lack of unity appear at the heart of all the above discussed cases and situations. Ecumenical principles of seeking visible unity amongst groups with varying viewpoints are missing. Unity does not mean that everyone agrees. It does not even mean that everyone likes each other, although that is healthy and productive. Unity is not one side forcing its views on another. Unity does not mean there will be no debates or conflict or even uniformity. Quite to the contrary, healthy debate is good and leads to creativity and innovation. Unity, true workplace ecumenical unity in particular, embraces the simple truth that we are not called to look, think or act exactly the same. We can only act in unity if that doesn’t happen. Diversity and inclusion, by its very nature, seeks diversity and inclusion not just with regards to our backgrounds, in how we look or how we socially interact but also in how we think, practice (or don’t practice) our faiths, and promote the general welfare. Workplace ecumenism, as I have presented it, brings people of different faiths, backgrounds and political and social views together to work towards the common ends of the particular workplace. I pray that workplace ecumenism be achieved in all our workplaces as it will enable all of us to lead more healthy, productive and fulfilling lives. 

Please contact Paul Sweeney at (317) 236-5894 or, or another member of Ice Miller LLP's Labor, Employment and Immigration Practice Group if you have any questions regarding this article.
This publication is intended for general information purposes only and does not and is not intended to constitute legal advice. The reader must consult with legal counsel to determine how laws or decisions discussed herein apply to the reader's specific circumstances.
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