Religious diversity in the workplace

Whilst companies have made significant strides in supporting people of different genders, racial backgrounds and sexual orientations in recent years, many employers continue to view religion as a contentious and divisive issue and shy away from embracing religious diversity in the workplace. As a result, employees often feel the need to “water down” their religious identities or even leave their religious beliefs at home.  

However, nearly 70% of the population of England and Wales hold religious beliefs. And the research demonstrates that when employees are provided with a supportive environment to express their religious identity in the workplace, employee wellbeing, productivity and loyalty are enhanced. 

So how can employers make their religiously diverse workforce feel more included, empowered and valued? We provide a few suggestions below:

  1. Update your policies to be inclusive of religious minorities and non-religious staff. Policies in relation to bullying, harassment and discrimination should specifically address what reportable behaviour may look like in relation to religion and belief. Flexible working policies should accommodate reasonable requests related to religion where possible (e.g. extended lunch breaks for afternoon prayers or staggered hours during Ramadan). Some employers are also testing the waters with flexible public holiday policies to allow employees to take time off on the dates most meaningful to them or to suit their personal priorities - so an employee may choose to work on Good Friday but take a day off for Holi or during Pride Month. 
  2. Create religiously inclusive workplaces. Initiatives to do so will vary from providing a private and quiet space for prayer or reflection to ensuring the canteen can accommodate religious dietary requirements. Equally, work events should be religiously inclusive otherwise certain religious groups may miss out on socialising and networking opportunities. So, for example, employers may want to consider avoiding work events on Friday evenings which could exclude Jewish employees who observe the Sabbath. Employers should also consider the suitability of any locations chosen by consulting with employees and ensure that non-alcoholic drinks are available. 
  3. Educate employees to prevent religious groups being subjected to harmful stereotypes. These stereotypes are reportedly widespread: a 2016 ComRes study highlighted that over half the public disagreed with the statement “Islam is compatible with British values” whilst a YouGov survey revealed that the word people most commonly associate with the term “Muslim” is “terrorism”. One-off training sessions are not sufficient – rather, ongoing education and awareness is necessary through events and the promotion of courageous conversations. Specific training for managers on topics related to religious discrimination and unconscious bias will help to ensure that stereotypes regarding certain religious groups do not impact an individual employee’s career progression. 
  4. Ensure that faith-related employee resource groups (ERGs) recognise the diversity and intersectionality of their members. ERGs should accommodate individuals with varying degrees of religiosity, from different sects / denominations and with different socioeconomic backgrounds, ages and sexual orientations. Employers should encourage faith-related ERGs to connect with other affinity networks (e.g. the carer’s network and pride network) and develop collaborative events and initiatives.  
  5. Encourage religious allyship in the workplace. Employers could publish major religious holidays in their organisation’s calendar to promote awareness of the various religious festivals. Team events such as themed movie screenings and facilitated discussions can also promote allyship. However, employers should collect input from a variety of employees before launching any events and consider whether the event may offend any individuals or result in negative backlash. 

Concluding thoughts 

Employers must remember that there is no quick fix and it will take concerted effort to build a religiously inclusive workplace where people feel comfortable bringing their faith to work. Regular engagement with employees to understand their experiences is crucial to building trust and developing effective policies and initiatives – and will ultimately make employees feel seen, heard and included.