Diversity and inclusion in the workplace has, in recent years, become a boardroom issue. There is a recognition that aside from the obvious ethical motivation, diverse organisations also perform better, according to almost all metrics and studies.

But it’s not always an easy thing to get right. It requires time, resources, sensitivity and expertise. In this series of guides, RedCat Digital explains the “how” and “why” of various different areas – each equally important – of diversity and inclusion.

This edition deals with religious diversity in the workplace. Religion has and will continue to be, one of the most contentious issues in the world at large. Such a sensitive subject – and one which goes to the heart of many people’s lives – might seem inappropriate for the workplace.

But more than half of the UK’s population is religious, according to surveys. And for some atheists, the feeling of lacking a religion is just as important and fundamental to their worldview as any religion.

Addressing religious diversity and religious issues in the workplace is, by most accounts, a lengthy process – and sometimes a challenging one. But it’s possible, and it is worthwhile. Here’s why.

The why

This particular principle applies to all aspects of diversity and inclusion, but it’s especially worth considering here: allowing people to be their “whole” selves, the most authentic version of their personality, at work, tends to produce the best and most productive employees.

That’s largely because people feel happier and more comfortable, more able to share ideas and take risks. All of those things equate to professional success.

And given how fundamental faith and religion is to an individual’s worldview and decision-making process, allowing people to feel comfortable exercising their religion in the workplace is evidently extremely important.

What’s more, for leaders actively looking to make their organisations more fair and equitable through diversity and inclusion programmes, it’s worth considering the wider patterns associated with religion and professional success.

According to an EU-funded study carried out by the European Network Against Racism, religious minorities face a range of biases, stereotypes and barriers in the recruitment process and beyond.

Cases of “stunted progression”, the study states, are “commonplace among religious minorities and can be attributed to a range of factors ranging from direct discrimination to general cultural gaps in understanding which can disadvantage minorities when seeking to move up the career ladder”.

It’s clear, then, that this is an issue worth tackling. Here’s how:

The how

The European Network Against Racism paper suggests that creating an environment in which religious people – in particular people from religious minorities – feel included, respected and valued for their work requires “concerted effort” from employers.

There’s unlikely to be a quick fix, but there are three main principles that can guide you on the road to success, the report says.

Valuing difference

Explicitly consider and communicate, as an organisation, the upsides of a workplace that promotes and accommodates religious diversity. A religiously diverse workforce benefits from a range of views, experiences and ideas; it better understands a diverse customer base; supported staff feel valued and respected and become better workers. Communicating this will help with buy-in and ultimately successful policies.

Next, rethink “neutrality”. For example, workplace policies on a “neutral” dress code have in the past led to discrimination lawsuits and workplace conflict. At the very least, staff may feel uncomfortable wearing religious dress – and as we know, staff who feel unable to represent their true selves at work will not perform as well.

Besides, “neutrality” is only based on the dominant culture in which the organisation is steeped.

Create a culture of freedom, respect and dignity for all employees

This is not about minorities “integrating” into an existing culture, it’s about accommodation and flexibility of people’s religious beliefs – whatever they may be (including none). You must also take a firm stand against attempts to persuade or convert people to a certain belief.

HR managers should create and deliver tailored training sessions – this will help address and educate on issues like unconscious bias. Diversity should be a leadership principle, and this criterion should be used as part of performance appraisals.

Finally, set up a complaints mechanism, with internal regulations, policies and procedures. Treat complaints seriously and act upon them.

Reasonable accommodation and universal solutions

The European Network Against Racism paper suggests starting with a “general policy of reasonable accommodation”. This does not mean that an employer must grant every request which relates to religion, the study says. It means that “all policies which prove incompatible with the way [people] manifest their religion should be properly considered, and then carefully designed with a compromise in mind”.

It’s useful, too, to build a base of knowledge and understanding about “religious manifestation” – that is, the way religious beliefs and practices display themselves. Consult with religious employees about requirements, preferences and what would help them most.

These conversations are likely to result in policies such as: incorporating religious festivals and holiday dates into the company calendar; bringing in a “universal solution” like general “meditation spaces” which can be used for prayer or just quiet time; and implementing flexible time management and holiday policies.

Religion is a sensitive issue, but with effort, strategy and understanding, it can be addressed in the workplace.

Redcat Digital offers a consultancy service, leveraging its many years working with clients to find the best digital and technology talent, to help organisations become more diverse and inclusive. Get in touch here.

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