By Manasi Bharati, Senior Psychology Consultant
We all have heard these and other such festival greetings at some point in our lives depending on where we are based.
Now, try to recall how many times you have heard these in a workplace setting. Often or rarely? Whatever your answer may be, let’s see what we are trying to allude to.
What are we talking about?
A recent study in the UK found that not many people are comfortable talking about religion or the celebration of festivities associated with it at their workplace (ComRes Faith Research Centre, 2017). ‘Following a faith is alright, but discussing it is not’, is what has been the attitude towards having and carrying faith to the workplace over the decades. At the beginning of the millennium, however, we did see an increase in requests for religious accommodation at the workplaces and actions in accordance with it globally (Tanenbaum Center and Society for Human Resource Management, 2001). With the renewed interest of organisations in diversity and inclusion in recent years, one would assume that such requests would no longer have to be made or that talking about religious issues at work would not be taboo anymore. Yet, it feels like there is a lot of progress to be made here.
Diversity in the workplace has been extensively studied and talked about, particularly concerning sex, gender, race, and age. However, intersectional aspects like caste and religion in the workplace are not well understood because of their assignment as “neglected diversity dimensions” (Harvard Business Review, 2022; Socius, 2022). Such ignorance is unfortunate in an increasingly multireligious work world where religious discrimination already exists and is only rising by the day (EEOC, 2021).
Here are a couple of instances from across the globe:
- Nearly 50% of countries saw a rise in religious discrimination between 2009 and 2010, and only 32% saw a decrease (Pew Research Centre, 2014)
- 3% of the UK workforce reported being harassed, bullied or discriminated against in the workplace because of their religion (ComRes FRC, 2017)
- More than 100 security guards of the Sikh faith in Toronto, Canada, were fired because of a new directive that forced them to shave off their beards to ensure that face masks fit properly, and they couldn’t do that due to religious reasons (The Guardian, 2022)
Let’s take a look closer to you: Does your office allocate separate areas for those who need to offer prayers or recite verses? Does your office canteen make provisions for specific religion-based dietary requirements? Does your office have a ‘dress code’ to be followed that not all people may be able to necessarily follow? Does your team respect and accommodate your time off for religious duties? Does your team encourage people to have conversations about faith or non-faith at work? Do you celebrate or enquire about festivities of different religions that people at your office follow?
Why are we talking about it?
With the UK becoming a multicultural and global state since 2009, the Inter Faith Network for the UK (IFN) with support from faith communities, Government, trusts and other donors has been observing one week in November as Inter Faith Week. Its purpose is three-fold (Inter Faith Week 2021, A widening impact, 2022):
- Strengthen inter-faith relations at all levels
- Increase awareness of the different and distinct faith communities in the UK, celebrating and building on the contribution they make to their neighbourhoods and wider society
- Increase understanding between people of religious and non-religious beliefs
The term ‘inter faith’ in Inter Faith Week is to describe the interactions between different faith communities and traditions and their members. In this context, it also refers to being inclusive of non-religious beliefs. We thought that this year’s Inter Faith Week is a good opportunity for us to share our thoughts on faith at the workplace and on how organisations can do more about it.
Be it accommodations to the dress code, to the work/ prayer timings or particular food in the canteen, religion at the workplace is a widely nuanced concept. It thus needs open and honest conversations to approach true inclusion and psychological safety. However, talking about religion can be sensitive, personal and tricky at times. In some countries, faith is strongly linked with people’s identities and way of life itself. However, by pushing this topic under the rug, we risk exacerbating discrimination and marginalisation. We may end up sticking to the assumptions and often false stereotypes about religions and religious groups that we don’t have much knowledge of. Carrying these can translate into committing microaggressions or even overt acts of racism at work, and we may end up alienating people from religious minorities and their experiences.
The key thing is to strike a balance between genuine curiosity and nosey, offensive questioning.
What can be done about it?
As an individual in an organisation, or even society, you can set the tone for those around you by creating an inclusive culture that values people for being human, regardless of their intersectional identities. This might seem challenging and even daunting in the beginning, but the journey of 10,000 miles began with a single step. So focus on your conscious and consistent effort.
Talking about religion at work doesn’t imply engaging in theological arguments or comparing which faith is better or worse. It refers to people from diverse religious backgrounds sharing their identities at work, connecting with others and feeling like they belong.
An article by Harvard Business Review (2022) suggests three actions to take to tactfully approach religious diversity and inclusion at work. We have added one action to start the list:
- Understand the position of faith in your organisation
Identifying your organisation’s position on faith can help you create open, non-threatening environments for employees to bring their whole selves to work – including their faith. David Miller from Princeton University’s Faith at Work Initiative created a model to determine the four main positions that organisations take.
Following are the four main postures (Haanen, 2017):
- Faith-avoiding – Active decision to avoid topics related to faith or religion. “That’s not appropriate here,” is the message, either overtly or implicitly.
- Faith-tolerant – Religion is tolerated but not embraced. Instead of avoiding the topic, employees’ personal beliefs inform their work and job responsibilities, and accommodations are made.
- Faith-based – The faith of the founders or leaders is woven into the day-to-day operations of the company like in Chick-Fil-A. They are overt about their faith, beliefs and symbols.
- Faith-friendly – Everybody’s ultimate beliefs (theist, secular, atheist or agnostic) are welcome. Topics of faith are neither avoided nor merely tolerated. Instead, active conversations about beliefs, backgrounds, and religious faith are welcomed.
- Educate yourself
Building awareness and cultural competence around faith and different religions of the world can help you empathise, understand and connect better with the multicultural people around you. Each individual difference is that person’s strength unique to them, so try to explore it further by having conversations with different people. It is not the responsibility of people from a different faith to talk you through their beliefs and practices; do your own research and ask for support on resources if required. Once you have done your primary research, you can then approach people to engage in conversations, only if they are interested in doing so. Be respectful and interested in the interaction and be aware of your own biases while doing so. A good starting point can be showing that you are open to discussing religion at work and asking questions like:
“I want to be respectful and mindful of your spiritual or religious commitments. If you are a person of faith, is there anything at work that inhibits your faith practice or makes you feel excluded from others at work?”
- Practice and promote inclusive practices
To make people feel comfortable, safe, and seen at work, through educating yourself, become more mindful of religious mores and rituals. If there are people around you who engage in overt acts of the practice of faith such as praying rituals, then ensure that you can provide them the space to do so without shame or judgement. Although it is wise to not make assumptions about people belonging to different faiths, as not each person chooses to perform and follow all the rituals of their religion. It is advisable to check in with people to understand their needs if any. For example, if someone needs to be in a physical space to perform prayers, if someone has dietary requirements and cannot drink alcohol or eat meat in a social gathering, if someone needs time off from work to observe a religious festival, etc.
Additionally, as a collective awareness activity, events, where people can showcase food, talent or practices from their own cultures and faiths, can be organised.
- Create psychologically safe spaces
Psychological safety refers to the comfort that one feels in being themselves at the workplace and bringing their whole self to work. Parts of a person’s identity or personality do not need to go off when they are at the workplace. They should feel comfortable without the risk of being judged or misunderstood. Creating such an environment is the true conducive to having faith and faith conversations in the workplace. The most important step to achieving this is to actively listen to those around you and to show genuine concern. Treat all conversations as a learning opportunity and allow others to complete their thoughts before jumping in.
Global changes, international migration, and an increasing desire for holistic ways of approaching life are driving people either towards or away from a spiritual or religious faith. No matter what the stand on faith is at a workplace, there should always be space to discuss it openly. True inclusion can happen only when the entire intersectionality of identities is accounted for, and that includes religious identities at the workplace. It forms an integral part of individuals’ lives and thus should be acknowledged at the workplace.