THE MEATPACKING FACTORY
James Windham was the manager of JBS & Company, a meatpacking factory whose 500
employees included over 100 Muslim workers. The majority of these workers had emigrated
from Somalia. Windham was pleased with their hard work and commitment to jobs that were
less than glamorous, and he considered them essential employees.
When he had hired the Muslim workers, Windham had agreed to allow them to have their
breaks at sunset so that they could properly observe the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. While
such an exception was an irregularity, Windham believed it was an appropriate response to the
religious needs of such a large percentage of his employee base.
Since the start of Ramadan, the Muslim workers’ break time had become more of an
issue than he had expected. Because of the constant shift of both sunrise and sunset, Windham
was faced with the logistical problem of planning the factory workday. In fact, while he viewed
the decision to allow the breaks at varying times as an effort to be flexible, he found the new
schedule to be just the opposite. During other months of the year, worker breaks were often
adjusted based on daily tasks, and if a job that had been started early in the morning looked as
though it would encroach upon the usual break time, employees had no problem simply moving
the break back. Now, with the Muslim workers needing to take breaks at very precise times,
focus and momentum were often lost, resulting in a loss of productivity.
Windham was not the only one who noticed the effects of the Muslim workers’ new
schedule. Most of the factory’s other employees were locals whose families had lived there for a
number of generations. While cultural differences between the workers had never been a
problem at the factory, the changing break times were causing tension. Many workers
complained that the changing break times were erratic and a distraction to their own ability to
work. Some expressed outright anger at the company’s deference to the Muslim workers and
claimed that it demonstrated favoritism. The decision to allow for the prayer breaks was the first
of its kind, and many of the non-Muslim workers believed the company management had been
manipulated by part of its employee base. Such sentiments had also been echoed in the town,
where some people had said that Somali immigrants should adapt to the American way of life.
Because of the productivity issues, the other employees’ complaints, and concerns about
the credibility of his management, Windham began to consider reneging on his agreement with
the Muslim workers. While they were a sizable group, these employees still remained a minority
at the factory and could cause serious problems in production and the workplace culture if they
chose to protest a perceived slight. Windham was not sure, however, that doing so would be the
right move. Since the Muslim workers had begun in the spring, the factory’s overall productivity
had gone up measurably. The Muslim workers were often the most willing to work long hours,
coming in early or working late if asked, and there was no question that their contribution to the
factory was significant. Also, Windham’s initial decision had been based on his belief that, as a
manager, he should consider his employees’ religious needs. He was not convinced that the
Muslim workers’ request was out of line. Having developed a friendly relationship with many of
them, he did not doubt that the workers’ break request was a genuine effort to practice their faith,
and he did not believe that the drop in productivity was deliberate.
Windham’s dilemma was compounded by the press surrounding other meatpacking
factories around the state, where some managers who faced the same issue had already taken
action. In some cases, bathrooms had been closed and water fountains had been taped, with
guards informing employees who took a break that they would be fired. Many Muslim workers
had lost their jobs, and one Muslim spokesperson had described the firings as un-American.
In thinking about the situation, Windham had to consider a number of factors. He had
decided to accommodate the religious needs of a very strong portion of his employee base, but
he was dismayed by the decision’s negative impact on his factory’s typically high productivity.
He also believed that he should be receptive to the concerns of the factory’s non-Muslim
workers, along with those of the community at large. In making a decision, he hoped to find both
an alternative to the drastic action taken by other managers and a way to avoid attracting the
same controversy surrounding other meatpacking plants.
- What is the most important issue. How should Windham think about this issue and what are his choices?
- What are the boundaries around what is allowable and not allowable in expression of spirituality/religion. How do we know when these boundaries are crossed?
- What right does an organization have to interject spiritual or religious overtones into a conversation or issue and conversely, what rights do stakeholders have to express their own spirituality or beliefs?
- What is at stake for Windham as a manager. How will his employees and other stakeholders view him as a leader if he accommodates/does not accommodate his Muslim workers?
- How important is work performance and preventing unnecessary disruptions to this decision. How if at all is this issue any different from a worker who asks to take a break to smoke, to take medicine, to check on a chronically ill child?
- How is discussing religion or spirituality different than a firm talking about its mission and values?
- Most questions are two or three part questions.
- Answer each question fully.
- For each question place a # representing your answer.
- Do not write the question out on your paper and waste valuable space.
- This case should be written to answer each question completely rather than written as a narrative.
- Your responses should be at least two pages long and not more that three pages.