8 Ways to be Authentic: Tyson Foods suggests how

by cv harquail on September 2, 2008

Tyson Food claims that, as part of its core values, it is “striving to be faith friendly”. But, if Tyson’s handling of the brouhaha over recognizing an Islamic holy day in the labor contract of its plant in Shelbyville, TN, is any indication, Tyson is having a hard time finding ways to demonstrate its values through its actions.


Tyson Food’s recent public actions seem to show, instead, that Tyson doesn’t really want to be authentic and/or that Tyson simply doesn’t know how to be faith-friendly.  (See my earlier post for a fuller description of the situation.)

I don’t think that I can convince Tyson to act more authentically, at least not until I can offer them some examples of actions that might demonstrate faith friendliness.  So, I put some creative energy against that task, and here’s what I came up with:

8 ways to be Authentic: How Tyson Foods can demonstrate faith friendliness

1. Respond respectfully to employees who ask for their religious holiday to be considered in their work schedules.

We’ll give this one to Tyson. We’ll assume that by including the holiday as a paid day off, Tyson was already being faith friendly.

2. Take responsibility for negotiating and agreeing to the contract that recognizes the holy day.

At the first sign of public relations trouble, Tyson denied its own responsibility for the contract. Tyson blamed the union for pressing the issue and ultimately faulted its own Islamic American employees for requesting the holiday in the first place. Instead of taking responsibility, Tyson behaved like a victim. To whit: (From MSNBC via HR Capitalist)

Tyson company spokeswoman Libby Lawson said by phone that, “This isn’t a religious accommodation, this is a contractual agreement. The majority asked for it.”

3. Describe the contract as a demonstration of the organization’s commitment to being faith friendly. Use the corporate response to the situation as a way to share with other stakeholders your understanding of what it means to be faith friendly.

The contract was not at all a demonstration of Tyson’s commitment to being faith friendly. If it had been, maybe Tyson would have responded differently, and defended its decision as an effort to be faith friendly. Instead, Tyson actually back-pedaled, rescinding the option of a negotiated Islamic holiday after this year. By back-pedaling, Tyson publicly withdrew its commitment to being faith friendly. Oops.

4. Stand fast against criticism of the faith-friendliness as a value and against criticism of your commitment to it.

Tyson never took the opportunity to discuss how its part in the contract was an effort to be faith friendly. Instead of responding to public pressure by engaging in a conversation– a conversation that might have educated, encouraged and inspired employees and other organizations, Tyson acted without a thoughtful explanation of its actions or reactions. In the absence of a thoughtful explanation of their behavior, Tyson’s actions made it look like the organization had buckled under public pressure.

Worse, because this public pressure was largely hateful, bigoted, and demonstrably not respectful of the diversity of faiths ( to put it mildly), Tyson’s action demonstrated an antipathy towards non-Christian religions, showing that it was not really committed to being faith friendly to anyone other than those who celebrate Christmas.

5. Talk about the example that Tyson can set for other organizations that want to become more faith friendly. Seize the leadership role.

Tyson missed the opportunity to model faith friendliness for other organizations, and missed its opportunity to exert positive influence. By repudiating the contract, being defensive and backing away without thoughtfully engaging the public in conversation, Tyson Foods actually showed other organizations how not to even try to be faith friendly.

5. Discuss and explore the opportunities that the contract and negotiation at one site offers for Tyson’s other locations.

Unfortunately, Tyson closed off any option to use this situation to experiment with how to extend faith friendly behavior across its other locations. By emphasizing that the conversation about the Islamic holy day was limited to the Shelbyville plant (as a way to constrain the public relations damage) Tyson constrained the way it was thinking about the situation. This cut off opportunities for Tyson to innovate around being faith friendly.

6. Seize the opportunity presented by this situation to learn more about, expand and enrich its own understanding  of “what it means to be” a faith friendly organization.

Tyson never took the opportunity to be self-reflective. It did not ‘seek to understand’ what it was trying to accomplish for its Muslim employees, or for faith friendliness in general. It missed the chance to learn about what it means to be faith friendly, and about what being faith friendly requires from an organization.

7. Reflect on how well you put your faith-friendliness into practice and recognizes how you can do better the next time.

In addition to a chaplaincy program or a booklet of mealtime blessings, there are more ways that Tyson can be faith friendly. They need to spend more time thinking about how to put faith friendliness into action– using this situation as a learning opportunity is a great way to start.

For Tyson, this would mean looking back over the way it handled this situation, and taking note of what it could do differently when they next have the chance to demonstrate their identity.  This might mean, for Tyson, to look at the difference between the way it recognizes the religious holidays of its Christian employees versus its non-Christian employees. It might also mean using lessons from this situation to develop a vacation policy that met the needs of all employees, regardless of their faith, so that all groups receive equivalent treatment.

8. Extend gratitude towards the stakeholders who ask you to put your claims into action. Thank those who hold you accountable.

Tyson should have been grateful to the Islamic-American employees and the union, because together they created an opportunity for Tyson to put its faith friendliness into action. However, instead of being grateful, Tyson blamed the employees for even asking the organization to act in a faith friendly way.

Worse, by taking away the holiday that had been granted, Tyson punished its Islamic-American employees. It blamed them and made them look wrong and illegitimate for wanting to have their holy day as a day off. Even worse, by breaking their promise, Tyson suggested that its Islamic employees were silly to have counted on the organization to keep its promises to them.

But the harshest outcome of all?   By succumbing to the bigoted pressure from some of their public, Tyson demonstrated that ultimately, it too was biased against its Muslim employees.

Instead of show how to be faith friendly, Tyson showed how not to keep a commitment, how not to take responsibility, how not to learn, how not to be a good role model, and how not to act in good faith.

When you add it all up– and then give it the most generous interpretation– Tyson really made a mess of this opportunity to be faith friendly. Which makes me wonder, why does Tyson even bother to make this claim, if it is so unwilling and/or unable to support this claim through its actions?

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