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Religion At Work: From Stigmatized To Normalized

Apr 15, 2024

For many people, religion and their relationship with it, play a central role in shaping their sense of identity. Yet, unlike the countless DEI efforts to increase equity and inclusion in areas such as gender, race, ethnicity, and ability, addressing religion in the workplace often remains taboo and stigmatized in many organizations.

As a result, significant gaps in skills, ability, and know-how to navigate religious diversity exist. These have become obvious recently in the  workplace repercussions of the horrifying Israel-Hamas conflict and the war in Gaza. But other societal and political events that involve social identity and power relations have an important connection to religion and religious diversity.

Faced with these situations, leaders may find themselves plagued with uncertainty and insecurity about what to say, often leading to avoidance or overreliance on organizational crisis communication. Organization-wide statements are absolutely needed; however, they do not seem to address the emotional and social needs of their people. 

Organizations can begin to meet the needs of their people by normalizing it. Normalizing religion is not about promoting one belief over another, rather, it focuses on fostering an environment where individuals feel respected, included, and valued regardless of their faith, which includes those who have agnostic or atheist orientations. 

Examining Religious Diversity

It is challenging to provide an exact number of religious traditions that exist in the world today due to the diversity and complexity of religious beliefs and practices across different cultures and regions. However, it is estimated that there are thousands of distinct religious traditions and belief systems worldwide.

Some of the major world religions include Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, Taoism, and many others. Additionally, numerous indigenous and folk religions, new religious movements, and spiritual practices contribute to the rich tapestry of religious diversity globally.

Each religious tradition often encompasses various denominations, sects, and branches, further adding to the complexity and variety of religious beliefs and practices observed around the world. The study of religious diversity is a dynamic and evolving field, reflecting the ever-changing landscape of human spirituality and cultural expression.

This vast spectrum of religious traditions and orientations is evidence that religion has been an important, galvanizing force that enables social organization and collaboration, cohesion, and collective identity throughout human history. It also serves important psychological and social needs. But, religion has also been a significant source of individual and collective trauma, as well as the basis of exclusion, stigma, discrimination, segregation, marginalization, and even extermination. More benignly, religion has shaped and structured our societies, communities - institutions, traditions, practices, beliefs, and behaviors in explicit and implicit ways.

Religious background and identity have played a significant role in shaping insider-outsider dynamics, alongside factors such as nationality and ethnicity, it's essential to recognize that the extent and nature of religious discrimination have also varied across different cultures and historical periods. While religion has often been used as a justification for prejudice and violence, there have also been instances of religious tolerance and cooperation among diverse faith communities. 

Religiously shaped social background and sense of identity are an important dimension of multi-dimensional diversity in many societies, communities, and workplaces that requires equitable acknowledgment alongside other dimensions of diversity. This is particularly important at a time when it is customary that workplaces acknowledge and affirm other dimensions, such as gender, sexuality, racialized/ethnic, generational, and disability. Just like after the murder of George Floyd, organizations have proclaimed and committed to antiracism, why should organizations not actively stand against hate and discrimination towards Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Mormons, Christians, and many others around the world? After all, increasing incidents of religiously based hate impact employees psychologically and emotionally, as well as their families and communities.

This is also why religious diversity emerges increasingly for leaders, including DE&I leaders. The repercussions of the horrifying Israel-Hamas conflict and the war in Gaza are only a recent, albeit particularly gruesome example. At the Inclusive Leadership Institute, we have encountered many leaders for whom their default reactions and behaviors have not worked, including their crisis communication or organizational statements. The conventional responses do not seem to address the (emotional) and social needs of affected parts of the workforce anymore; they are not relationally intelligent

Secularism May Not Be Enough

This also suggests that secularism (a neutral stance on religious matters within public spaces or governmental affairs) - upon which so many Western societies are built, may no longer suffice as the foundation for the type of religious inclusiveness required in organizations today. 

By respecting (and encouraging) religious plurality and protecting individuals' rights to religious freedom, secularism promotes tolerance in public policy and governance. This is realized by maintaining the public domain essentially as a religion-free zone and restricting overt religious expression or doctrine to the personal/private domain. This way of approaching religious diversity has also guided many organizations and their leaders.

Secularism prioritizes the principle of secular governance, where laws and policies are based on secular principles rather than religious doctrine. It seeks to create a level playing field for individuals of all faiths and beliefs. On the other hand, religious inclusiveness emphasizes the accommodation of religious beliefs and practices within the framework of existing laws and policies, ensuring that individuals are not disadvantaged due to their religious affiliations.

While secularism aims to create a neutral public space where individuals of all religious backgrounds can participate equally, religious inclusiveness goes a step further by actively accommodating and respecting religious diversity in various aspects of life, such as education, healthcare, and the workplace.

Also, secularism may sometimes conflict with certain religious beliefs or practices, especially when they infringe upon the rights or freedoms of others or when they seek to influence public policy based on religious doctrine. On the other hand, religious inclusiveness may face challenges in balancing the rights and interests of individuals with conflicting religious beliefs or in addressing situations where religious practices clash with organizational policies, legal requirements, or other inclusiveness priorities recognized by the organization.

  • In some countries, for example, there may be conflicts between secular education policies and religious beliefs when it comes to topics like teaching evolution in schools. Some religious beliefs may reject the theory of evolution, while secular education systems prioritize teaching scientific concepts based on evidence.
  • Disputes can arise over the display of religious symbols in government buildings or public spaces. For example, a government's decision to display a nativity scene during Christmas may be seen as endorsing a specific religion, conflicting with the secular principle of state neutrality in religious matters. 

For organizations, religious inclusiveness may include the display of a range of religious symbols for the purposes of recognizing holidays that are relevant to its global workforce. Also, providing inter-faith prayer and/or meditation rooms is strongly recommended. 

This should be paired with the encouragement of learning about different religious traditions and their significance to the daily lives of employees. Equity is a key concern, particularly how to fairly represent the religious traditions that matter to employees without omitting or marginalizing some. This is indeed a formidable challenge, and organizations are well advised to engage their employees in their efforts to recognize and educate them about their religious diversity. In this effort, encouraging and supporting learning without endorsing proselytizing is important.

  • Balancing religious inclusiveness with workplace policies can be challenging when religious practices clash with organizational rules. For instance, an employee's religious requirement to wear specific attire or head coverings may conflict with a company's dress code policy.
  • Conflicts can arise when religious groups seek to influence public policy based on their religious beliefs. For example, debates over issues like same-sex marriage or reproductive rights may pit secular arguments for equality and individual rights against religious arguments grounded in traditional beliefs.
  • Respecting religious diversity while upholding individual rights can be complex. For instance, ensuring religious inclusiveness in the workplace while also preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and also other faith traditions or religious orientations. 

This may require careful navigation of conflicting rights and interests. Organizations need to articulate carefully reasoned points of view and support them with corresponding policies. For example, companies may recognize that certain religious belief systems cannot supersede the rights of individuals to freedom from harassment and discrimination.

  • Challenges can also emerge when religious beliefs conflict with medical practices or legal requirements in healthcare settings. For example, disputes may arise over a healthcare provider's refusal to provide certain medical treatments or services based on religious beliefs, potentially infringing upon a patient's right to access healthcare.

In contrast to secularism, religious inclusiveness recognizes, embraces, and accommodates religious diversity within various social spheres, including the workplace. Of course, this creates leadership challenges that the simple separation of workplace and religion does not. However, facing these challenges may be inevitable in today's world where (a) employees are expecting their employers to recognize, affirm, and accommodate their social identity, and (b) the religious dimension is growing in importance to their sense of identity.

 

Making Religious Inclusiveness Real 

1. Choose an anchoring perspective on religion and religious diversity

At the Inclusive Leadership Institute, we leverage an anthropological understanding of religion as a useful starting point for this work. Instead of focusing on theological or faith aspects, anthropology understands religion as an important aspect of human culture, addressing questions about its origins, functions, and variations across different cultural and historical contexts. Importantly, anthropology's understanding of religion differs from conventional approaches in that it seeks to explore the cultural, social, and symbolic dimensions of religious beliefs and practices within diverse human societies.

From this perspective, religion is not a static set of beliefs or rituals but a dynamic and multifaceted phenomenon that shapes and is shaped by the societies in which it exists. Anthropologists study religion through various lenses, including rituals, myths, symbols, and social organization, to understand how these elements contribute to constructing meaning and identity for individuals and communities.

One key aspect of anthropological inquiry into religion is its emphasis on cultural relativism. Anthropologists strive to understand religious beliefs and practices within their specific cultural contexts, without imposing external judgments or value systems. This approach recognizes that what may seem puzzling, irrational, or even bizarre from an outsider's perspective often makes perfect sense within the cultural framework of the society or community in question.

The commitment to cultural relativism is perhaps most relevant for organizations as recognizing and respecting religious diversity also means that the organization is impartial to any specific religious denomination and/or orientation.

2. Engage your workforce

On the basis of this perspective, engage your workforce by encouraging them to share personal reflections about their religious background and how religious practices impact their daily life. This can be done in a variety of ways, including:

  • Learning to develop awareness for religious diversity in the workplace. These should include and encourage employees to share their personal experiences and perspectives as a key element to developing an open attitude, curiosity, and learning. Importantly, they should also help managers and leaders work through practical situations, dilemmas, and decisions related to real and realistic ways in which religion shows up in the workplace.
  • Video-Based Storytelling, which features leaders from diverse cultural and social backgrounds.
  • Religion-Based Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). This can be a delicate decision as you have the option to (a) charter denomination-specific groups or (b) inter-faith / interdenominational groups. We strongly recommend the latter, as a forum that is constituted on the basis of religious diversity and plurality is most suited to inform the organization and support a commitment to inclusiveness.
  • Conversation Forums. Whenever religiously based identities and/or communities experience threat or discrimination, it is important to offer facilitated conversations to understand the emotional and psychological impact on employees and operations. These events should foster empathy and connection, thereby strengthening - and sometimes healing - the organization's social fabric.
  • Communications Campaigns. Like the conversation forum, communication campaigns should raise awareness, foster empathy, and strengthen community and commitment to religious inclusiveness. Frequently, organizations already acknowledge holidays and important events. However, there is a voice that could be cultivated beyond this important acknowledgment; a voice that educates and supports a broad vision for religious inclusiveness.

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Joerg Thomas Schmitz

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Joerg Schmitz    
 

 

Company Information
The Inclusive Leadership Institute 
Inhaber/Owner: Joerg Schmitz
Kommodore-Johnsen-Boulevard 26
28217 Bremen / Germany
Betriebsnummer / Company Nr.: 83841216
UST-IdNr. / VAT ID: DE 339418563

Home | Coaching | Consulting | Learning | About | Events | Contact

Imprint

Inhaber/Owner:
Joerg Thomas Schmitz

Address/Adresse:
Kommodore-Johnsen-Boulevard 26

28217 Bremen ‚Äď √úberseestadt
Germany

Telephone/Telefon:
+49 1520 8612287

E-Mail:
[email protected]

Rechtsform: Einzelunternehmen

Betriebsnummer:
83841216

Ust-Id Nummer:
DE 339418563       

Gesch√§ftsf√ľhrer:
Joerg Schmitz    

Company Information
The Inclusive Leadership Institute 
Inhaber/Owner: Joerg Schmitz
Kommodore-Johnsen-Boulevard 26
28217 Bremen / Germany
Betriebsnummer / Company Nr.: 83841216
UST-IdNr. / VAT ID: DE 339418563