Navigating the Interfaith Workplace: Start with Inclusion 101

Interfaith Religious Symbols

The Jewish Holiday of Passover and the Christian celebration of Easter falling so close on the calendar may have prompted an increase in interfaith conversations in the workplace this year, as employees prepared for their respective family celebrations. For companies promoting an inclusive work environment, it may beg the question: If and/or how should conversations about religious differences take place at work?

Elmer Dixon, President of Executive Diversity Services, suggests starting that conversation with a question that is at the core of intercultural communications: “Does the difference make a difference?”

“Productive heterogeneous groups are those who focus on similarities without ignoring their differences. Differences are discussed in order to be understood and accommodated,” says Dixon. “Not talking about religion in the workplace is fine as well, if there is not a direct correlation to the work itself and the engagement of employees.”

And sometimes the conversation is more literal than philosophical. “Having a ‘kosher only’ microwave in the lunch room” is an easy accommodation,” says Dixon, for employees who might keep kosher (Jewish) or halal (Muslim). But, with another “Diversity & Inclusion 101” tenet in mind, “Don’t make assumptions,” advises Dixon. All people within a single religious group are not monolithic. Be open to a conversation when accommodations are discussed, and listen to what people are requesting.

The federal government has determined 10 national holidays, including one religious holiday, Christmas, when businesses in the US are usually closed. The assumption that a majority of employees (depending on the workplace) are Christian is not unfounded. According to the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study, in the US 70% of people are Christian; 23% are unaffiliated and only 6% are non-Christian (including 1.9% Jewish and .9% Muslim). “Offering a ‘floating holiday’ or ‘personal days’ to employees allows the employee to choose when they will need a day off, whether it be for Good Friday or Yom Kippur or something else.”

Conversations about Faith in the Workplace in an Interfaith World

Dixon refers to other tenets of inclusion when approaching conversations about faith or religious practices in the workplace. “Remember that ‘intent does not equal impact,’” says Dixon. Consider, for example, asking questions of someone whom you do not know well. “Your intent may be to show curiosity and interest, perhaps with the openness to answer questions in return. Your unintended impact may be to make someone feel challenged or attacked, particularly if you are asking questions in front of others, and they are the only one of their faith.”

The Internet, books and friends within your own personal circles offer easy answers to many basic questions. “Be responsible for your own learning. Read, listen and observe without expecting someone else to teach you.” And, counsels Dixon, if you do ask an individual about their religious practices, know that this may not apply to others. “A single person can’t be expected to answer for the entire faith.”

“Employee Resource Groups are part of a strong Diversity & Inclusion strategy at any company,” says Dixon. “The same guidelines that govern employees organizing groups may yield a vibrant Interfaith Affinity Group. Faith-based employee resource groups may complement a company’s workforce-diversity goals and contribute to the bottom line through employee recruitment, development, engagement and retention.

“Just as people are talking more about religion and interfaith differences in the media and in the world, those conversations are likely to seep into the workplace,” says Dixon. “It’s only when conversations are disrespectful, proselytizing or discriminating that they are problematic,” and most companies already do (or should) have policies in place to combat any form of workplace harassment.

“Be aware of your own stereotypes or assumptions about religion and how they may guide your interpretation and judgment of someone’s behaviors, communication styles or work values,” says Dixon. And, “assume that people are serious about career goals or work tasks,” whatever their religious background.

Above all, religious differences are just another aspect of a diverse work force. “An inclusive work environment is one that is welcoming and embracing of the strengths of our differences, encouraging involvement and providing equal access to opportunities and information,” says Dixon.

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