Religious Diversity in the Workplace and Why it’s Important for Inclusion

Religious diversity and inclusion

In this article, Farah Hussain, EW Group Diversity and Inclusion Consultant, discusses the importance of religious inclusion in the workplace and shares her practical tips on how organizations can foster greater religious diversity and inclusion.

At its core, religious diversity and inclusion is about respect, valuing difference and recognizing patterns in relation to which faiths are acknowledged, understood and celebrated.

This is important in the workplace because at a fundamental level it makes you feel seen and heard as an individual, with a multitude of dimensions to your identity. It goes beyond words and cultivates the space to be accepted for who you are without judgement or ridicule.


Religious diversity and intersectionality

Inclusion is multi-faceted and each of us will intersect with different identities. I identify as a British Asian Muslim woman. I am a mother, a neighbour and an entrepreneur. These are just some of my identities, which all overlay and intersect with each other. I have many roles in life and my faith is central to how I present myself.

I believe that this intersectionality is key to inclusion. At a basic level, it is an everyday experience that conveys that I matter, and I am important. This is a fundamental need that needs to be met through all sections of our society; at work, in our public and private institutions whom we interact with.

Faith and religion are key to understanding intersectionality. As you’ll know, to be Jewish is to be ‘ethnoreligious’ which means both a faith and an ethnic group. If you’re a Black woman who is a practicing Muslim you have three layers of what we call ‘compound disadvantage’ to overcome in life and work, relating to your race, your gender and your religious beliefs.

The benefits of religious diversity in the workplace

From an employer perspective there’s a legal imperative to be religiously inclusive. The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone because of religion or belief, or because of a lack a religion or belief.

Beyond compliance, we know that when people can be open at work about their identities and feel the environment is supportive of their beliefs they contribute more, stay longer in their roles and show enhanced performance.

Religious diversity helps organizations to:

  1. Build bridges in understanding, which in turn will make colleagues of different religious beliefs feel more valued. They are likely to feel more comfortable at work and more engaged.
  2. Once they have gained confidence in a particular brand respecting them and challenging stereotypes about them, it will build trust and loyalty that can spread through social media to wider networks.
  3. Many religious followers are also part of wider tight knit communities. They will help promote your organization as a great place to work amongst their networks.

The approach set out in this article aims to help everyone view employees from a wide range of religious backgrounds, including Muslim colleagues such as myself, as everyday people and not as people to be feared.

What organizations can do to be religiously inclusive

It is important that organizations equip their employees with the tools and practical skills they need to understand what to say and do, alongside a well-defined analysis of how to take appropriate account of difference. It is not enough to say, ‘be aware’, if people don’t understand what they are meant to be aware of and what to say and do even if they are.

The skills required to understand this mosaic of faiths requires serious work, underpinned by an analysis of how advantage and disadvantage works in organizations, in other words, the patterns of systematic discrimination in society and in workplaces.

Gain an understanding of your workforce demographics

Firstly, it is important to understand the profile of your employees. Conducting a survey on religion and faith is a good starting point in beginning to understand this. EW can work with you to include this as part of a wider Diversity and Inclusion Audit.

The 2021 census data demonstrated the diversity of faith in the UK, with 46% (27.5 million) of the population describing themselves as Christian, 6.5% (3.9 million) as Muslim and 1.7% Hindu (1 million). While major religions have witnessed an increase in numbers, Christianity experienced a drop, with a further 22% who do not identify with any faith. The Guardian reported that some of England’s biggest cities are clearly becoming more diverse.

Review your religious diversity and workplace policies

Policies require managers to plan holidays or work arrangements with individuals to try to ensure people can celebrate and take off their holy days like Christmas, Eid, Guru Nanak’s Birthday and Passover to name a few.

Review your existing policies with a faith and religion lens, particularly your DEI policy, recruitment policy and grievance policy. You may not need a stand-alone policy on faith and religion if full consideration is given within your other policies.

Train your HR teams to respond to faith-based requests

Train and equip people managers and HR to know how to appropriately and sensitively support staff and respond to any faith-based requests or needs. Ensure they are confident in responding to complaints in this area too.

Inclusive language use and communications

The language we use is crucial and it is important that organizations set an expectation for their employees to avoid stereotyping and non-inclusive language use. There is much misinformation about many religions and if it’s not questioned it’s easy to be absorbed by all the negativities.

In relation to portrayal of Muslims in the media for example, here are some specific action points:

  • Get familiar about common terms in the Muslim culture e.g., how to pronounce the word, Hijab.
  • Avoid making assumptions, asking questions about head coverings – such as are you forced to wear this, do you wear it when you sleep? Do you actually have hair under that? Instead, be curious. Most people would welcome genuine interest in their faith.
  • Raise awareness with the latest research about the extent that we are bombarded with negative images of Muslim women, especially from Afghanistan. The Taliban’s interpretation of Islam is not one that is shared by the vast majority of Muslims in Britain.

The stereotyping of Muslim women in the media is a very real issue, which negatively impacts on women’s wellbeing. Stemming from common perceptions that a Muslin woman is being oppressed at the hands of her male family or men in general from her faith, we are bombarded with questions/assumptions concerning coercion to wear the head covering (Hijab).

In reality, many British Muslim women choose of their own volition to wear the hijab as a commitment to their faith. Some may be on a journey exploring their faith and may choose to change their attire to adopt a more modest form or vice versa.

Create balanced perspectives

Just like Christians and those with other faiths are individuals, similarly Muslim women too are. They are not a homogenous group and will adopt varied expressions of how they wear the hijab. Some may have a more fashionista blend, others a more traditional look whilst others might be more hybrid in the form of a turban hijab, like Nadia Hussain, the Great British Bake-Off Queen.

If you’re preparing internal or external comms on faith, check what you’re saying with people who actually practice that faith! It may sound obvious, but it’s often forgotten. Doing this avoids many missed opportunities to get comms right for everyone.

Educate your workforce on unconscious bias and its affects

Creating an open and inclusive culture is key. Understanding unconscious bias and its affects will help your team to recruit and retain the best talent, regardless of background, race, gender etc.

This includes being aware of micro aggressions or micro behaviours, and training people on how to reduce these in their own behaviours. For example, many Muslim women are asked whether they are forced to wear a headscarf. Or assuming people aren’t British because they aren’t white. Or being referred to as ‘terrorists’ as a joke/banter and so on.

Practical tips to promote religious diversity in the workplace

Here are our top tips for how organizations can take some practical, everyday steps to become more religiously inclusive.

  1. Support employee wellbeing by creating quiet multi-faith spaces that remain private yet safe for all those wanting to observe their religious practices. Muslims for example offer their regular prayers, serviced with prayers mats. Develop inclusive communal spaces and separate spaces where required (this applies, for example, to food preparation and consumption during Ramadan).
  2. Adopt flexible working patterns/approaches and train managers in how best to support staff. Allow flexible scheduling to accommodate religious practices. For example, if an employee cannot work during a religious holiday or needs to work different hours of the day due to fasting or for prayer. Muslims may for example require offering their prayers 2-3 times a day, each lasting 10 minutes, many will make up that time or take a reduced lunch break.
  3. Use representative imagery reflecting people of faith in positions of leaders, ensure that darker skinned people are included to counter the fairer skinned media bias.
  4. Create cultural awareness days to celebrate for e.g. Diwali, Yom Kippur and Ramadan – support these awareness days with leaflets and food sharing opportunities.
  5. Create faith diversity calendars to highlight different festivals, their meaning and create opportunities to help build better understanding about the symbolic significance /meaning of each of the celebrations.
  6. Provide training to staff /managers which includes patterns of historical disadvantage and discrimination that Muslims and other faith groups face across the world, the rise of islamophobia, the extent of hate crime that Muslims experience going about their everyday. Almost every Muslim family would have been inflicted with some form of hate crime and would not have reported it. Higher levels of UE /deprivation and disadvantage amongst Muslims. Resulting in people living in fear when out and about.
  7. Have poster campaigns that highlight faith-based hate crime with practical tips to support all those affected by acting as allies.
  8. Work events and celebrations should be inclusive for all your employees. Consider cultural differences and dietary requirements, e.g. providing non-alcoholic drinks and labelling food. Many organizations consciously make their December celebrations more inclusive simply by calling it a festive party or holiday season.
  9. Consider creating staff networks and ERGs. You may also want to consider setting up a staff network or employee resource group focussed on religion and belief. They would provide an ideal sounding board on polices and practice. The Civil Service has a number of different faith-based staff networks and champions for example.

The best organizations keep an open dialogue with their employees. They do the groundwork and thinking and also recognize that they won’t always get it right. They have done the work to help their teams understand the basics e.g., that different religions celebrate

What EW can do to support your organization

We help organizations create inclusive cultures and workplaces in which we can all thrive, and where differences are celebrated.

We advise organizations of all types on how to build inclusive working cultures – for the benefit of employees and the growth and sustainability of the business.

Get in touch to find out how we can support your religious inclusivity

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