Tyson Foods lacks faith in its own identity.

by cv harquail on August 9, 2008

When organizations are being authentic, they approach their problems by drawing on their identity.

An organization that wants to be authentic must regularly find ways to translate its beliefs about ‘who we are’ into actions that demonstrate ‘who we are’. When an organization has faith in its own identity, it will strive to demonstrate this identity in its behaviors. But if the organization’s identity claims are not reflected in its behavior, you start to wonder just how much the organization believes in these claims.


There is a fascinating situation occurring right now at Tyson Foods that really illustrates this point.  Tyson, an organization that claims to be “faith friendly ” can’t seem to connect its behavior with its self-definition.

The situation in Shelbyville

1. The Shelbyville (Tennessee) Times-Gazette ran a story (8.01.08) that made public a months’ old contract agreement where “(W)orkers at Tyson Foods’ poultry processing plant in Shelbyville will no longer have a paid day off on Labor Day, but will instead take the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr in the fall.”

2. In response to the flak generated by this article, Tyson Foods issued a press release (8.04.08) Labor Day Still Recognized at Tyson Foods; Union Contract Provision only at Shelbyville, TN Plant in which they denied responsibility for the decision and emphasized that the consequences of the decision were local and minimal. This response satisfied no one.

3. The squawking online continued, consumers threatened to boycott Tyson’s products, and Tyson’s received hundreds of e-mails from angered customers who who opposed this “accommodation to Muslims”.

4. Then, less than a week later (8.08.08), Tyson’s announced that it had reached a revised agreement, that : “for this year and this year only, employees could have both the Labor Day holiday and the Muslim holiday.”  Labor Day Reinstated as Paid Holiday at Shelbyville, TN. It looks like Tyson’s pressured the union to renegotiate the contract so that it could get out of this public-relations mess.

What’s surprising about this situation?

Tyson’s claimed identity as faith-friendly was never mentioned.

Based on what I know about Tyson’s, the only part of the story that did not surprise me was the very first step — the accommodation of their Muslim employees’ religious holiday. I thought this would be a great opportunity to write about supporting an organization’s faith friendly identity through organizational design — specifically, through labor relations practices.  As it turns out, what’s going on with Tyson’s is the opposite of what I would have expected — leading me to conclude that Tyson’s lacks faith in its identity.

How important is faith friendliness to Tyson’s organizational identity?

When I first saw this story in the New York Times  (all disclaimers apply), I was not surprised that Tyson’s had found a way for its Muslim employees to have their holy day as a vacation day.  I think of Tyson’s as a faith friendly organization, because I’m one of the 35,000 moms who requested a copy of Tyson’s Giving Thanks at Mealtime booklet of blessings, one of their public expressions of faith friendliness.

1. The company claims throughout its corporate publications that it is striving to be faith friendly.

I wondered whether I was mistaken to think of faith friendliness an important part of Tyson Foods’ identity.  When I surfed over to their corporate website, there was faith friendliness as one of the (only three) elements of Tyson’s corporate, public description of “Who we are”.

Who we are:

  • We strive to be a company of diverse people
    working together to produce food.
  • We strive to be honorable people.
  • We strive to be a faith-friendly company.

Tyson’s corporate sustainability statement elaborates on their identity, in the discussions of the people and ethics that compose “who we are”, particularly the statement “we work hard to respect and honor traditions”.  Maybe that’s just the standard boilerplate…  but no, there’s more: Tyson’s discussion of “Who we Are” also describes the growth of their Chaplaincy program.  Chaplaincy program?

2. The company has designed a system to support its faith friendly identity.

Tyson Foods chaplaincy program employs over 125 part-time chaplains, working at Tyson’s 280+ plants and offices, including the Shelbyville plant. Nearly all the chaplains are Christians, although at one time at least one was an imam. This “unique benefit” has been in place since 2000, and has drawn the attention of organizations promoting spirituality in the workplace as well as  news organizations.

The Director of Chaplaincy Services  is even charged with the task of supporting management and advising management, “consult with senior management on matters relating to chaplaincy, religion in the workplace, ethics, etc. … and provide guidance on crisis response to management.”

Yes, but …

By establishing and growing a company wide program to support their employees with non-/multidimensional chaplains, Tyson’s seems to have designed in an organizational system to support their identity of being “faith friendly”. If you only saw the claim about striving to be faith friendly or had heard only about the chaplaincy program, you might even think that Tyson’s was on the leading edge of organizations trying to embrace the challenges of spirituality in the workplace.

But, when you read either the first press release or the second press release  you start to wonder:

Just how much faith does Tyson’s have in its faith friendly identity?

If Tyson’s really believed that it was faith friendly, Tyson’s would have seized this opportunity to demonstrate how much it respected the religious beliefs of all of its employees. Tyson’s would have looked for ways to demonstrate that it was working hard “to respect and honor the traditions, values and contributions” of Tyson employees.

It’s a strong signal of Tyson’s inauthenticity that Tyson’s does not seem to know how to translate faith friendliness into behaviors.  But it’s even more damning, if you will, that Tyson’s never even mentions the idea of faith friendliness in the context of this situation.

How would you expect a faith friendly organization to approach this problem?

If striving to be faith friendly is authentically part of Tyson’s organizational identity, then the concept of “faith friendliness’ — what it actually means to be faith friendly– should inspire how Tyson approaches this situation.

What might this look like?  Tyson’s could say “this issue of religious holidays for our employees is important to us as a faith-friendly organization.”  And, Tyson’s could ask itself “what might be  a faith friendly way to resolve this problem?”  But it doesn’t look as though Tyson’s did either of these things.

At the very least, I would expect an organization that claimed to be faith friendly to return to this belief and use it to help understand a crisis situation like this one. I’d expect the organization to release a statement that read something like: “As a faith-friendly organization, we recognize the importance of religion in our employees lives and we do our best to accommodate employees of any religious or spiritual persuasion in a fair way.  Therefore…”   And this is absolutely not how Tyson’s responded.

Is Tyson’s being authentic or not?  My preliminary conclusion is that either

1. Tyson’s has an extremely limited view — a parochial view, if you will — of what it means to be faith friendly,

— OR —

2. Being faith friendly really isn’t part of Tyson’s core identity.

What do you think? Weigh in by clicking the comment link (at the very bottom right of this post) and sharing your opinion.

Here is Steven Greenhouse’s article… notice the additional specifics missed in the Times-Gazette report.

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