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Balancing faith and business

By Peter Walker for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Business schools are not only about teaching students.

They also exist to carry out research and, equally importantly, flag up emerging issues that the wider commercial community needs to be paying attention to.

The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton school, which has topped the new Financial Times's Global MBA rankings for another year, has just highlighted a subject that companies need to be increasingly aware of: religion in the workplace.

In the United States, one of the most prominent examples of this has been the practice of office-based prayer sessions within the administration of President George W. Bush.

Yet a Wharton study of the issue stresses that it goes beyond Christianity, also taking in the divergent needs of the varying faiths practiced by immigrant communities, both in the United States and other countries around the world.

"The old paradigm of leaving your beliefs behind when you go to work is no longer satisfying," said Stew Friedman, practice professor of management at Wharton and director of the school's Work/Life Integration Project.

"More than ever, people want work that fits in with a larger sense of purpose in life. For many people, that includes a concept of God, or something like it."

This can bring up a series of issues, for example the faithful expounding their belief in the workplace.

Potentially controversial, it is also a tricky legal area in the United States, according to Deborah Weinstein, who teaches employment law for managers in Wharton's legal studies and business ethics department.

"Courts across the country have interpreted this issue very differently," she said.

"In a 2006 case in California, the court said persistent and blatant proselytization is prohibited because it could constitute harassment. But other courts, in Colorado, for example, have said employers need to bend over backwards to accommodate those who need to proselytize."

Sensible attitude

When making religion compatible with work it is most sensible for employees to take some personal responsibility, according to Friedman.

"Let's say you need to pray several times during the work day," he said. "How does your being able to pray during the day make the company more effective? If it's something you really care about, you'll find a convincing way to make your case. This inverts the normal antagonistic way of thinking about your company meeting your needs."

Other considerations include the potential business of recruiting a staff chaplain or similar religious figure.

Companies considering this, Wharton warn, should pick someone with a relevant masters degree, specific training in drug and alcohol abuse and marriage and family counseling, and membership in a professional chaplaincy organization.

As well as a full-time appointment, such people can be hired in for around $125 an hour.

But as well as all the potential pitfalls, the mixing of work and faith can also have a business benefit, the study stresses.

Religion-savvy companies can avoid blunders such as the decision by fashion group Liz Claiborne to embroider verses from the Koran on the rear of its DKNY-branded jeans, something condemned by Muslims as deeply offensive.

"Cultural competence is a big buzz word right now," Georgette Bennett, president of the New York City-based Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, told the study.

"But you can't be culturally competent without understanding something about religion, because religion is the largest component of culture. You have to figure out how to tap into your internal diversity resources."


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Face to faith: Making religion work in the office.

FACT BOX

FT's Executive MBA Rankings
1. Wharton, U.S.
2. Hong Kong UST, China
3. London Business School, UK
4. Instituto de Empresa, Spain
5. Fuqua, Duke, U.S.
6. Chicago GSB, U.S.
7. Columbia, U.S.
8. Kellogg, U.S.
9. Stern, NY, U.S.
10. Cass, City University, UK
Source: Financial Times 2006

FACT BOX

EMBA SNAPSHOT

Executives taking the top EMBA courses in the U.S., Europe and Asia have average salaries of around $130,000 to $200,000.

A typical EMBA student is likely to be aged in the early 30s, with 6-10 years of working experience.

A top EMBA course can cost $100,000. Customized courses start at a few thousand dollars.

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