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Corporate Chaplains: For Some Companies, Jesus Works in HR

Over 1,000 U.S. companies have faith-based H.R. officers ready to support troubled employees. But is that legal?

Once upon a time, companies didn't want to get too involved with their employees. Still today, when you talk to your human resources people, you're likely to get a lot of that stilted, distant language that sounds like a police officer describing an incident: "The individual removed his cap, whereupon the officer in question observed that the individual..." or "the policyholder may elect..."

Some companies though, wrote Bloomberg Businessweek, have added an unusual personal touch: Corporate chaplains. (The story, if you click through, starts with a Burdick to whom I am not related.)

Workplace chaplains like Bissell can be found at more than 1,000 companies in the U.S. and Canada. These chaplains are a rising regiment of corporate America’s human-resources army, as employers have found that a pastoral touch is often more appealing to workers than an impersonal hotline of the sort included in many benefits packages.


The first question that springs to mind: "Is this legal?" The short answer is that if employees don't feel coerced into participating, it seems to be. A column in The Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association said that courts generally try to balance an employer's freedom of expression of religion with employees' rights to not be discriminated against. The Businessweek piece gives many examples in which that balance appears to be struck.

Bad example are out there too: At one company, an employee's performance review resulted in assigned goals such as "openly support Chaplain and (the company's) philosophy."

That comes from EEOC vs. Preferred Management Corporation, a case with plenty of egregious practices of which improper chaplain conduct was only a part. Back to the Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association:

Although Preferred argued throughout its motion for summary judgment that employees were informed before they joined Preferred that it was a Christian business and that attendance at devotions and other religious activities was not mandatory, the judge found that a jury could reasonably conclude that religion at Preferred was not a voluntary practice.


This would seem to be the exception to the rule, of course. There is one other service that the chaplains provide—to employers. Their eyes and ears:

...employers like the regular reports chaplains provide, which can reveal the level of employees’ concerns about everything from salaries and overtime to troubles at home. Because chaplains are proactive, doing outreach rather than waiting for complaints to filter up, they hear more, and sooner, than do typical human resources professionals. “When gas first went over $3, the financial stress was showing up in the chaplains’ reports,” says Daniel Jones, chief executive officer of Encore Wire (WIRE) in McKinney, Tex. So one day, as employees were leaving work, they got $25 gas cards. “It didn’t cost a lot,” Jones says, “but it meant a lot to them.”


It's a nice gesture coming from a slightly weird-feeling place.

Chaplains are legally required to report certain things like threats to harm oneself or others. While corporate chaplains say it doesn't come up much, you come away feeling like their chief loyalty is to the client company (which signs the paychecks), not necessarily the people they're counseling. Put another way, if what's causing you problems is workplace stress, you might not take that to the company clergy. If you're going through personal problems and want support at work—and you happen to be religious—you might be in luck.

Photo via Flickr (cc) user Rchard.

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