Religion in the Workplace: How to Achieve Inclusive Observance

In 2015, U.S. food processing company Cargill fired 150 Muslim workers from its beef processing plant in Colorado after a dispute over prayer breaks.  After facing protests about the layoffs, the company reversed its decision and allowed the fired employees to return to work.  Similarly, a Muslim woman sued Abercrombie & Fitch because she believed the company did not hire her due to her wearing a hijab.  The court ruled 8-1 in her favor.

While Civil Rights legislation does require employers to accommodate their workers’ religious needs, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that religious discrimination claims have almost doubled since 2001.  In fact, James Sonne, founding director of Stanford Law School’s Religious Liberty Clinic, has found that “religious discrimination in the workplace is an issue that continues to fester in the U.S., to the particular detriment of minority faiths like Muslims, Sikhs and Seventh-day Adventists.”

In today’s work environment you will find individuals who subscribe to a variety of faiths as well as individuals who consider themselves atheists, agnostic, on nonreligious.  In fact, nonreligious people, or “religious nones” (Michael Lipka, Pew Research Center), now represent one of the fasted-growing segments of the population.  Nearly one in three people under the age of 30 identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated.  The challenge most managers are faced with is how to accommodate their employees’ diverse religious needs while being respectful of those who describe themselves as nonreligious.

It is worth pointing out that, despite the documented growth of those who consider themselves religiously unaffiliated, Christianity is still the “norm” in this country.  Christian hegemony and privilege manifests in various ways across our institutions: school and workplace holidays are keyed to the Christian calendar (particularly Christmas and Easter), politicians make frequent references to the Christian bible, and the weekend supports Christian worship, to mention just a few examples.

In the study What American Workers Really Think About Religion: Tanenbaum’s 2013 Survey of American Workers and Religion, results showed many managers are hesitant to tackle the issue of religion for fear it is too-sensitive an issue to address.  Tempting as this may be, tap dancing around religious observances is no longer a viable solution because, for many employees, religion represents a significant part of their identity.  Because of that, there has been an increase in the number of companies that have started the process of crafting policies around religious accommodations.  Accommodating employees’ religious needs makes business sense as it can lead into increased retention as well as increased job satisfaction.  Examples of what companies have successfully put in place include:

  • Providing prospective employees with the company’s religious discrimination policies.
  • Offering flexible hours to allow workers to take time off to observe religious holidays.
  • Creating “quiet rooms” which are open to all employees not only to pray but also to take a quick break.
  • Including major religious and cultural holidays beyond Christianity on its calendar to increase awareness and help set work schedules.
  • Developing “tip sheets” that outline dietary restrictions. This not only helps accommodate employees’ religious beliefs but also ensures work-related functions meet their dietary needs.
  • Creating religious resource groups where individuals from all religions as well as those who are religiously unaffiliated are encouraged to join. The goal is for members to learn from each other and partake in the celebration of different holidays and beliefs.
  • Being proactive in assessing their employee’s religious beliefs. This would prevent companies from, for example, scheduling a business lunch during Ramadan or an important meeting during Yom Kippur.

Luke Visconti, founder and CEO of DiversityInc and a nationally recognized leader in diversity management, believes companies have two choices to help employees celebrate the holidays within the company: “respectful nonobservance”, or “inclusive observance.”

Respectful nonobservance means you forego all religious celebrations but close your doors for critical holidays that reflect your employee population.  Given that 76 percent of the U.S. population consider themselves Christians, it would make sense for companies to close during Christmas.  Closing their doors for every major holiday, though, presents a challenge for employers.  Because of that, managers should be cognizant of all other major religions represented within the company and be ready to accommodate an employee’s request for time off.  This is the type of culturally competent practice that shows respect for an employee’s faith which, in turn, could improve engagement, boost productivity, and reduce loss of talent.

Visconti believes that companies run into trouble when they solely emphasize one religion to the practical exclusion of all others (especially when it benefits the majority).  Also particularly troublesome is the practice of celebrating the holidays in a “sanitized” fashion, which often leads to no one being happy.  Companies attempting inclusive observance should celebrate different holidays with equal emphasis.  This is particularly important for companies with a global reach and a highly diverse workforce.  This practice could be a fun way for all employees to celebrate and expand their worldviews.

As far as meeting the needs of those who are religiously unaffiliated, Michael Lipka, from the Pew Research Center, has found that a number of them also say they believe in God or a “universal spirit.”  In fact, three-in-ten (31%) say they feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being at least weekly.  A similar share (35%) often thinks about the meaning and purpose of life, and slightly over half of all atheists (54%) feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe.  In the spirit of inclusive observance, companies should recognize the need for the religiously unaffiliated who believe in a “universal spirit” to connect with their deep sense of spiritual peace.  Could this be another use for the prayer room?

Many companies are still navigating through the challenging process of creating an inclusive religious environment while still recognizing the needs of the “religious nones.”  There is no question that we are currently living through highly polarized times.  Despite all our differences, let’s find some common ground and be kind to one another.  So, from now on, if someone wishes you a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Season’s Greetings, Happy Holidays, Peace, or any other greeting associated with their culture, religion, or belief, assume good intent on the part of the well-wisher and, regardless of your religious or non-religious background, simply reply: Thank you! You too! *


* Adapted from Dave Liebermans’ holiday greetings flowchart.

About Luiza Dreasher

Luiza has over 20 years of experience in higher education and is very passionate about issues related to diversity, inclusion, and cultural competence development. She has presented extensively nationwide on topics such as contrasting U.S. American values with those of other cultures, challenges and opportunities of a culturally diverse workplace, building inclusive environments, communicating effectively across cultures, resolving conflicts effectively, understanding cultural differences, the impact of nonverbal behavior in communication, understanding the cultural adjustment process, and the importance of recruiting and retaining a culturally diverse workforce.

One comment

  1. Thank you for a thoughtful and much needed piece on religious diversity. Every year during the December timeframe, I am reminded over and over that I am not part of the majority and am understood only in certain circles. It’s very confirming to hear awareness and acknowledgement of majority-group privilege and guidance on how to be more inclusive. Similarly, I am inspired to learn more about other religious minorities as well as those who are unaffiliated and to build common ground. I hope this entry serves to build awareness among others as well and to be intentional about widening our lenses regarding religious diversity.

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