Diversity & Inclusion

Tyson Foods: a lesson in religious tolerance, community relations

Tyson Foods is going a long way toward making employees of all religious persuasions happy. At least that’s the case at its plant in Shelbyville, Tennessee. About 700 of the 1,200 employees there came to the United States as political refugees from Somalia, and most of those 700 employees are Muslim.

Recently, the Tyson plant’s union voted to trade a paid Labor Day holiday for Eid al-Fitr, the religious holiday marking the end of Ramadan, a month-long Muslim religious observance.

“The negotiating committee made the holiday a top priority in contract talks,” the union’s Alabama and Mid-South Council Representative Randy Hadley said in a statement released in June. “And we were able to get management to commit to it.”

The change won’t impact nonunion employees at the Shelbyville Tyson plant, nor will Tyson’s 118 other plants be affected.

About 80 percent of the union members voted for the trade, Tyson representatives said. Abdillahi Jama was among them. “This new contract is good because it allows me to work on the second shift and still pray when I need to,” he said in a press release. “It’s very important to us, and the Eid is one of our most sacred holidays. It shows how the union helps us.”

The new contract also provided Muslim workers a prayer room at the Shelbyville plant, which, according to Tyson representatives, is one of a few that have designated prayer areas for groups of all religions.

Community backlash forces change

The reason this change worked internally at Tyson, says Todd Dewett, Ph.D., and author of Leadership Redefined, is that most decisions are judged by employees based on perceptions of process fairness as opposed to outcome fairness.

“If they feel the process used to make the decision was acceptable — that they had a voice, the process was transparent, they agreed to the process to be used, they had their concerns heard — employees will accept outcomes they do not necessarily like,” explains Dewett, associate professor of management at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. “It is usually when negative outcomes happen with low process fairness that that you would expect fallout from the ‘losing’ employees.”

But some nonemployees apparently were feeling neither a sense of fairness nor part of the process. So after angry outcry from the community in the media and on the Internet — including mass e-mails calling for a boycott of Tyson products — the company amended the contract to reinstate Labor Day for 2008, giving workers an extra paid holiday.

Next year, those employees who don’t observe Eid al-Fitr “will have the option of selecting another day as a paid personal day at their discretion,” said Tyson spokeswoman Libby Lawson.

The reaction from some of the employees and the community is one that should have been anticipated, says Sangeeta Gupta, Ph.D., a management and organizational development consultant who specializes in diversity and intercultural consulting. “The strategy should have consisted of various levels of communication with both their own employees and with the community,” says the owner of Gupta Consulting in Orange County, California.

Tyson obviously didn’t anticipate the reaction of the community.

“However, given the climate within the country at present, this reaction should have been anticipated and planned for,” Gupta says. “Press releases or a story from union members themselves discussing the change and the reason for it may have helped to diffuse the reaction. Also, they could have had some of their own employees respond to the negative comments from the community. Having the employees speak for themselves would have created a much-needed dialogue.”

Don’t make changes without good reason

It is possible to take religious tolerance in the workplace too far, cautions Bradley Hall, president of global HR consultant Hall & Co.:

“Until recently I worked for IBM in Tokyo,” he says. “[Former IBM HR executive] Ted Childs decided that there would be no more Christmas celebration. The IBM rule is that, in order to display in your cubicle anything to do with Christmas — Santa, snowman, pine tree with ornaments — you have to also display a menorah and a Kwanzaa bush. Japanese IBMers would come to me and ask, ‘What is a Kwanzaa bush?’ I had no idea. The Australians were told that they could no longer have a Santa at the Christmas party and that they were no longer allowed to call it a Christmas party. They were furious and did it anyway.”

The lesson: making blanket mandatory changes (particularly when you don’t educate employees about why you are making them) doesn’t constitute true diversity. Often, the result is merely a different kind of intolerance.