Case study: Religious backgrounds
The workplace brings together people of different backgrounds and experiences, all working towards shared goals. An inclusive workplace makes the most of these different backgrounds and experiences to create a safe and productive space to succeed together. Religious beliefs and practices are important in most people’s lives, and how a company accommodates these goes beyond the annual holiday calendar.
Susan is the manager of a newly-formed seven-person engineering team, and each person on the team has been working for the company for a few years. At her first 1:1 meetings with the team, she asked each person if they had any vacation scheduled in the next few months. She gets an unexpected response from two people on the team, though both say that they were uncomfortable mentioning it in front of the group.
Jeffrey asks Susan if company policy will allow him to take Yom Kippur as a holiday versus deducting it from his vacation hours. Amir asks about future offsite events for the team. At the last team-building event he attended, they cooked a gourmet meal together with a wine tasting during Ramadan, when he was fasting for a month. Susan realized a few things during these discussions. First, though she is aware that her team members may come from different religious backgrounds, including Judaism, Paganism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Mormonism, she isn’t familiar with their practices. Second, without knowing and understanding the needs of her team members, she is likely to repeat the mistakes of other managers.
What NOT to do
Don’t assume that everyone in a group comes from the same religious background, or that two people of the same religion have similar practices — for example, one Jewish team member may keep Kosher, while the other may not.
Don’t hold team-building and bonding events on religious holidays, even if you aren’t sure about which faiths members of your team adhere to. Someone may feel uncomfortable about approaching a team leader to request time off or ask for an event to be rescheduled, and automatically accommodating people makes them feel comfortable and more welcome. This also ensures that members of specific religions don’t feel singled out, and that people don’t criticize them for “always taking time off” or “not being part of the team.”
Don’t tell employees that religion doesn’t belong in the workplace. Faith is an important aspect of many peoples’ lives and being unable to talk about their lives can make people feel excluded. At the same time, be watchful to ensure that employees are not making each other feel uncomfortable with proselytization or probing questions about their religious practices.
Consider asking that overt faith-based symbols not be included in decor, for example, as some people may be uncomfortable around religious symbolism. Remind team members that when invited to talk about their faith by those who are interested in learning more, they should feel free to do so if they are comfortable, but they should not push their religious beliefs on others.
What TO do
When team members approach a manager with requests for accommodations or concerns about their role on the team, leaders should take a proactive role in offering support. This includes discussing the issues at hand and the options available for addressing them. For instance, a Catholic team member might ask to come in slightly late on Ash Wednesday, or a Muslim team member may ask for flexible hours to be on time for iftar during Ramadan. A manager should ask the employee if there are holy days like Eid, Beltane, Good Friday, or Holi that her employee would like to be able to take off.
If possible, consider creating a quiet and neutral area for employees to use for prayer, meditation, and other religious activities. Make the room open to all, and ask that employees be mindful about different potential uses of the room.
Be inclusive about the treatment of all religions in communications and discussions to make people on the team feel comfortable, and make it clear that you expect all employees to do the same. Acknowledge that everyone’s religious beliefs have value and carry equal weight, and stress from the outset of onboarding that religious intolerance is not acceptable — including interfaith intolerance.
Consider religious limitations on alcohol, various foods, and specific practices when planning team bonding events. While you do not need to accommodate practices that are discriminatory — such as refusing to be in a room with mixed genders — thinking ahead about issues like alcohol and providing foods that meet dietary restrictions will make people feel more welcome. Remember that such events are valuable for networking and career development, and that by excluding religious team members, you are making it harder for them to advance in their field.
Be explicit about what to expect at bonding events so employees feel welcome; for example, an invitation could say “alcohol and soft drinks will be provided” or “vegetarian food is available.” Venues should also be inclusive. Think ahead while ordering in-office catering and make sure that inclusive options are available on order forms, and that catering services are capable of meeting dietary standards like strict Kosher, Halal, and vegetarian diets.
Setting an inclusive example across a company will create a more productive environment that will improve employee satisfaction, reducing attrition and allowing a company to attract people of a variety of faiths. New hires may have much to add to a company’s climate, including different perspectives on its products and skills that aren’t readily available, and a sense of diversity that will benefit all employees. It’s important to treat religious employees in a way that promotes mutual respect and appreciation across a company, including them both inside the workplace and during after-hours activities intended to help people bond and network.