Uncovering Religious Diversity in the Workplace 15:45, May 3, 2017

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Uncovering Religious Diversity in the Workplace

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We often hear praise for workplace diversity, not just as a compliance mandate, but as a way to foster an organizational culture that encourages a vigorous marketplace of ideas and spurs innovation. Yet perhaps because even leaders in their fields find the topic uncomfortable, few companies publicly proclaim a commitment to religious diversity in the workplace, let alone set out religious diversity goals.

Supporting Religious Diversity

There are exceptions, however. For example, in an article titled “Are US businesses doing enough to support religious diversity in the workplace?,” The Guardian reported that accounting colossus EY encourages religious inclusiveness by providing “quiet rooms” where employees can take a break to pray or reflect, by including major cultural and religious holidays on the company calendar to facilitate scheduling, and by outlining dietary restrictions on a tip sheet to help with planning employee events involving food. The same article quotes Rev. Mark Fowler, Deputy Chief Executive Officer at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, as noting that: “Employers often think that religion needs to be treated differently than other facets of work-life accommodation, but in many instances the practices a company already has in place can be used to accommodate religious beliefs and practices too.”

As Fowler’s observation underscores, religion deserves attention as part of any diversity program. From a compliance standpoint, religion is on a level with race, gender, age, and other characteristics protected under Title VII of the US Civil Rights Act and similar provisions in many jurisdictions, both in the US and globally. From the perspective of talent retention and productivity, religious diversity can contribute to organizational strength in our increasingly global workspace. Research spanning decades shows that employees who can integrate work with their identities — including their religious identities — tend to be more engaged and productive at work.

Uncovering the Data

A 2013 survey published by Deloitte tested the hypothesis that inclusiveness efforts often stall when workers yield to workplace pressures to conform. If true, this would undermine diversity and inclusion goals. The survey asked whether respondents had “covered” aspects of their identities to fit in with their workplaces, such as by changing their appearance or behavior. “Covering” occurs when someone tries to minimize (but not hide) the importance of parts of their identity at work, often based on a real or perceived stigma. For example, an “out” gay employee may refrain from bringing their partner to company events to which partners are invited. The Deloitte survey found that 61% of 3,129 workers surveyed covered some aspect of their identity at work, such as sexual orientation, race, or gender. The Deloitte study, whether through purposeful omission or inadvertent oversight, did not discuss or even mention religion.

Tanenbaum’s January 2015 Corporate Membership Newsletter, which cites to the Deloitte survey for data as part of a discussion of the “covering” concept, provides examples of workers covering their religion: a Jewish employee asking for time off to care for a sick relative rather than admitting she needs the time for Yom Kippur; a Muslim employee praying in a deserted corner of the office rather than a conference room; and a Christian employee who, when asked about her weekend, clams up about the time she spent volunteering on a church mission. As the Newsletter notes, self-imposed covering is not just a matter of employee choice:

The majority of participants [in the Deloitte survey] felt that covering was simultaneously detrimental to their sense of self but nonetheless important for their long-term professional advancement. What this data tells us is that people are not covering at work because they want to but, rather, because they feel they have to. This becomes an issue when you consider that employees are covering the very same identities that many companies are working so hard to include in their Diversity & Inclusion initiatives.

But what might religious workers suggest their organizations do to encourage religious diversity? Tanenbaum’s 2013 survey of 2,024 US workers provides insight into how employees rate their workplaces in terms of accommodating religious practices and implementing policies related to religious diversity. Rev. Fowler also published a summary of the survey. Key findings include:

  • 36% of employees witnessed or experienced a lack of religious accommodations, particularly with regard to religious holidays or diet
  • Fewer than half of workers say their organizations permit flexible work hours or holidays for religious practices
  • 2 in 5 or fewer workers report that their organizations provide materials explaining company policy on religious discrimination (42%) or educate employees on religious diversity (14%)
  • Workers at companies that have unclear or nonexistent complaint processes are more than twice as likely to be looking for new jobs (41% v. 22%)
  • Employees at companies that do not provide flexible hours to accommodate religion are more than twice as likely to report that they don’t look forward to coming to work (29% vs. 13%)
  • More workers at companies without materials explaining the organization’s religion discrimination policy report that they are looking for a new job (32% vs. 25%)

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The survey results suggest a positive correlation between job satisfaction and the propagation of policies encouraging religious diversity. So why do so few workers report that their organizations put these policies into practice (or communicate existing policies)?

“Corporate executives are often hesitant to tackle the issue of religion,” observed Tanenbaum’s CEO, Joyce S. Dubensky, as reported in Rev. Fowler’s summary of the survey. “They’re concerned that it’s too nuanced or sensitive an issue to incorporate into the company’s diversity initiatives,” she continued, “but that perspective only results in ducking the inevitable. Religion is an issue in workplaces. The trick is to manage it so it works for your advantage.”

Missed Opportunities

Perhaps missed leadership opportunities are to blame for another curious survey finding: that employees in more socially diverse workplaces reported seeing increased instances in which religion was not accommodated, and reported experiencing or witnessing greater conflicts between employees regarding religion. This at first seems counterintuitive, until two factors are considered: 1) a large number of workers reported deficient policies and training to address religious diversity; and 2) since diversity alone is no magic pill, a more diverse workplace is not necessarily a higher functioning one.

As we’ve written before, diversity alone will not achieve increased employee engagement and productivity; for sustainable diversity capable of retaining talented workers long-term, an organization must be inclusive.

Workplace diversity does not originate on the job. On the contrary, the workplace draws on pre-existing diversity that’s rooted in who workers are 24/7. Diversity is a matter of identity, in all of its elusive aspects (cultural, genetic, ethnic, sexual, etc.). Religion is integral to many workers’ identities, and part of a diverse workforce. But just as striving for diversity and inclusiveness with regards to race, age, gender, or any other protected characteristic will not automatically lead to a utopian workplace, policies, procedures, and training regarding religion at work should be in place to anticipate potential conflicts.

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Steve Treagus
Stephen Treagus, JD's, previous practice as an attorney specializing in employment litigation exposed him to the rough-and-tumble world of employment relationships gone awry. Today, this experience informs his articles and courses, helping employers avoid costly litigation and get employment law right. Stephen earned his JD from John F. Kennedy University School of Law and his BA from Sonoma State University.

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