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Religious CEOs: Tyson Foods' John Tyson

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The food company's born-again-Christian leader encourages talk of faith and football at work.

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John H. Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods (TSN), was introduced to religion by his grandfather John W. Tyson, who founded the company in 1935.

"My mom and dad didn't attend church, but I went to church," he said in a rare interview. "I was introduced to the Methodist Church by my granddad, John. He went to the First United Methodist Church of Springdale (Arkansas)."

Religiosity may have skipped a generation at Tyson, but it's now an integral part of the operation under John H's tutelage -- a born-again Christian who follows the teachings of the Bible more feverishly than he follows Crosby, Stills, & Nash, the band he's been known to travel with.

Tyson, whose workspace at Tyson HQ is modeled after the Oval Office in the White House, doesn't believe faith need be checked at the door when an employee clocks in for a shift.

"My faith is just an ongoing evolution, trying to understand what faith in the marketplace looks like, giving people permission to live their faith seven days a week," he said. "If people can talk about the football game on Monday, why can't they talk about their faith?"

At Tyson Foods, they can -- and they can talk about it with men and women of the cloth, employed by the company.

In an email message to Minyanville, Tyson Foods spokesman Gary Mickelson provided an overview of the meat processor's Chaplaincy Program, which was revived by John Tyson after his father Don stepped down as CEO in April 2000. The program employs 120 chaplains who "walk through the food production plants and offices of Tyson Foods, Inc. where they listen to, encourage, and sometimes pray with some of the more 117,000 [Tyson employees]."

The chaplains are available to all workers, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Tyson said, "We have people of Jewish faith. We have people of Muslim faith. We got some 20 different variations of Baptists."

The Chaplaincy Program has been in place since October 2000 and "provides compassionate pastoral care to Team Members and their families."

Mickelson points out that Tyson's chaplains are "not there to force their faith upon anyone, but to be of help to those that are open to their ministry."

The company says that "the feedback that we receive indicates the program has a generally positive effect on employee morale and retention. Employees see it as an extra way the company cares about them. The team member does not have to leave work to talk to someone about their personal problems or issues. The chaplain is seen as a neutral, safe person to whom they can share their personal concerns and issues."

Faith also plays a role in what Tyson Foods calls its "Core Values," one of which is being a "faith-friendly" company. This commitment earned Tyson the 2007 International Spirit at Work Award from the International Center for Spirit at Work, an organization for companies that integrate spiritual values such as kindness, compassion, and integrity, into the workplace. Another Core Value maintains that Tyson Foods "strive[s] to honor God and be respectful of each other, our customers, and other stakeholders." For customers, Tyson Foods has distributed about 25,000 "Giving Thanks at Mealtime" booklets to guide families through the process of saying grace at the dinner table. And a $2 million gift from the Tyson Family Foundation and Tyson Foods helped establish the Tyson Center for Faith and Spirituality in the Workplace at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas.

Workplace chaplaincy is not unique to Tyson Foods. According to estimates, there are somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 workplace chaplains ministering to people at a large number of companies including Coca-Cola (KO), R.J. Reynolds (RAI), JBS (formerly Swift Foods), and General Motors. Electronics maker Texas Instruments (TXN) offers "serenity rooms" where employees can go to pray.

Workplace chaplains seem to be good for business, too. Art Stricklin, of Marketplace Chaplains, claims turnover at Taco Bell (YUM) outlets in central Texas dropped by 33% after chaplains were added to the payroll.

Other instances of improved workplace results through faith-based programs are difficult to come by. But religion isn't going away anytime soon at Tyson Foods.

As one Tyson chaplain said, "A Tyson Team Member has a pastor, whether they go to church or not."

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