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Promoting religious diversity in the workplace

Ceylin Güven

Religious diversity in the workplace is important in many ways: it can bring a lot of different perspectives, experiences, and cultural knowledge to an organization. But, it can also potentially create tension or misunderstandings if not approached carefully enough. In this article, we will give you more information about religious diversity, and explore how to promote religious diversity in the workplace to create an inclusive and respectful work environment for employees of all faiths.

The importance of religious diversity in the workplace

More than 85% of people around the world identify themselves with a religious belief, with only 7% claiming to be completely non-religious people. This is an incredibly vast majority of the population, and it shows us that true workplace diversity should accommodate religion as well.  Here are a few reasons why a religiously diverse workforce can be beneficial, both for the workers and the business itself:

  • A diverse workforce is essential to maintain cultural diversity, which will help bring fresh ideas and different perspectives to the table. Your team will be able to approach problems more creatively, and come up with versatile solutions. This will also help them communicate better with customers and clients.
  • Reinforcing religious inclusion and empathy will create a company environment where respect is a priority when it comes to workplace interactions. This will positively impact the harmony of your work environment, help improve team communications, and create an inclusive and safe space for everyone.
  • Relatedly, being able to create a safe space will improve employee retention as well. This is because people are more likely to stay with businesses that are able to treat employees with equitable respect.
  • Companies that are known for their cultural and religious sensitivity will have a better reputation among those sensitive to the subject. A more positive light can improve employees’ morale, and grow your clientele at the same time.

Religious rights at work

People’s freedom to practice their faith in the workplace safely is protected under strict laws. The US Civil Rights Act Title VII prohibits religious discrimination and harassment, and makes it mandatory to provide the necessary accommodations if a workforce exceeds 15 people. The EU also has policies that aim to promote religious diversity and discourage discriminatory practices.If you believe you’re facing religious discrimination in the workplace, you are within your rights to take legal action. Don’t hesitate to call out non-inclusive behavior, and consult with legal professionals to see how you can be compensated.

Challenges of religious diversity at work

Accommodating everyone's religious needs can demand a special effort. Especially to do it in a way that is fair and consistent, while also balancing the needs of the business. Nevertheless; no matter how difficult, it’s a step that needs to be taken. One of the biggest challenges is the lack of religious knowledge by managers. A lack of understanding and awareness can create misunderstandings, escalate conflicts, lead to non-compliance issues, and make it harder to employ a religious diversity policy.

Examples of religious discrimination

Not being educated and informed on religious diversity can create interpersonal tension, sometimes even leading all the way to religious discrimination and harassment. Here are a few examples of religious discrimination in the workplace:

  • Associating certain races/ethnicities with extreme piety and treating them as “the other” (Xenophobia)
  • Negative bias towards people with religious clothing during the hiring process
  • Workplace microaggressions towards religious minorities regarding their clothing, garments, religious practices, etc.
  • Verbal harassment, offensive remarks, and hate speech towards religious communities as a whole (e.g. antisemitism or islamophobia)
  • Blatantly only targeting only certain groups in job posts
  • Stereotyping people based on their religion (associating Judaism with stinginess, Islam with violence, etc.)  
  • Enforcing dress codes that aren’t accommodating for certain beliefs
  • Persistent attempts of proselytizing, meaning, trying to instill your own beliefs into others and convert them
  • Not having policies that reinforce religious inclusion and/or protect religious people’s rights in the workplace

7 ways companies can promote religious diversity and inclusion

Inclusive & unbiased hiring practices

Unconscious bias is unfortunately still a very common occurrence in the initial job interviews, where applicants are judged based on how they present themselves. People of certain races, or those wearing religious symbols and garments, might get unfairly stereotyped due to their appearance. For example, studies show that Muslims, especially women, are significantly less likely to get hired for entry-level jobs. What should be done instead is reinforcing unbiased hiring practices throughout the company. Job postings should be accessible by everyone, and applicants should be evaluated based on their skills, not their identities. It would also help to talk about your non-discriminatory hiring practices on the posts themselves, so that people of all religious identities can apply without reservation.

Mandatory diversity trainings

After the hiring process is completed, managers are also tasked with providing a safe workplace for their workers of all backgrounds. This is of course not possible without enforcing mandatory religious diversity trainings. Everyone in the workplace–HR, managers, and employees alike– should be educated in respecting religious differences. Being educated in the subject and learning how their actions can harm others is essential to eliminate ignorance-born issues. This is an important step towards minimizing workplace religious discrimination, and promoting understanding and inclusion instead. There are a lot of resources about religious diversity training in the workplace, both online and offline. DiversityResources has a great training program you can browse for starters. You can also consult nonprofits working towards religious diversity in the workplace, which we’ll get more into in the following sections, so make sure to keep reading!

Support by managers and supervisors

Seeing the support of supervisors and managers leads to a significant improvement on employee well-being and job satisfaction, according to IBR’s research. This is why people with managerial roles should actively work towards being more knowledgeable on these issues, and promoting cultural and religious sensitivity. Every individual instance matters in this situation. When a Muslim employee sees that their manager is taking a firm stance against anti Muslim sentiments and islamophobia in the workplace, for example, they will feel much more secure.

Having a PTO for all religious holidays

Most companies in the West have PTO (paid time off) for Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter. Your non-religious employees probably regard this as a ‘free day off’, but people of non-Christian beliefs might feel discriminated against. Instead, introducing a PTO for all religious holidays and celebrations is a great way to promote religious diversity in the workplace. It shows that you’re able to provide equal benefits to everyone, and that you’re willing to make flexible arrangements for religious accommodations.

Create time & space for religious practices

People might need different settings to practice their faith at work, and it’s the managers’ responsibility to provide accommodations for these at work. This is why allowing them the space and time to do so through flexible scheduling is crucial. For example, Jewish people might need to clock out earlier during Friday afternoons for Shabbat, and Muslims might appreciate an empty, quiet space for their prayers during the day. Two key things you can do in this situation are:

  • Allowing for breaks during the day for praying times and other religious practices
  • Providing ‘quiet rooms’ or empty spaces that are dedicated to performing religious activities, relaxation, etc. in the office

Make sure you do your research for accommodations. Your employees might have different needs than you predict, so the best thing you can do is ask them what they need personally.

Reviewing dress codes

Another important step might be to review your company dress codes. Some businesses might have restrictions that make it hard for certain people to wear religious attire in the workplace (not allowing beards, headwear, etc.). This is discriminatory, and also, not allowed by workplace laws: Dress codes are there to promote a level of professionalism, not to restrict people’s freedom to practice their religious beliefs.

Zero-tolerance policy towards discrimination  

The last, and perhaps most important, step is to employ a zero-tolerance policy towards discrimination to promote equality in the workplace. People that face religious discrimination or harassment need to know that their rights are being protected by their company. Knowing that there is a strict policy in place would encourage them that your business is able to provide a safe space for them, no matter these isolated incidents.

Nonprofit organizations working towards a more diverse workplace

There are a lot of nonprofit organizations worldwide that are working towards promoting inclusion and protecting religious rights at work. Here are some examples:

  • IARF: The International Association for Religious Freedom is the world’s first international interreligious group. They aim to encourage diversifying workplaces through dialogue, social projects, and more.
  • The Kaleidoscope Group: A global consulting firm that provides a myriad of diversity solutions, such as education and workplace measurement opportunities.  
  • Tanenbaum: A nonprofit that aims to promote interreligious understanding through several educational resources, healthcare, and other ‘peacebuilding’ activities.
  • Interfaith America: A US-based nonprofit that provides educational tools, courses, consultancy, and several grants to promote workplace diversity. “The Interfaith Leadership Institute” is a program that trains college students and young professionals to lead interfaith efforts on their campuses and in their workplaces, encouraging more open discussions about the topic in the future.
  • RFBF: Religious Freedom & Business Foundation is another example. Their "Global Respectful Workplaces Program" is a project that provides resources and training to employers specifically, to help them create more inclusive and respectful work environments for employees of all religious backgrounds.

Each of these organizations have many other programs and resources available as well, and it's a good idea to check their websites for more information. There might also be many other local foundations and nonprofits that can help you with your religious diversity efforts.

Don’t shy away from it

Feigning ignorance does more harm than good. Acting like religious discrimination at work isn’t a serious issue will hurt you more in the long run. Instead, actively working towards religious diversity and inclusivity in the workplace will help create a much better work environment for everyone involved. We hope you find the knowledge we provided in this article useful! Keep following the Ruul Blog for more informative posts about modern work news, trends, and tips.


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