Lisa Fraser argues that respecting the religious convictions of a workforce is a win-win situation for employers and employees alike.
A few years ago, my employers decided we needed to have “a nice time together”. They organised a big party on a Thursday: alcohol was flowing freely, the following day was a Bank Holiday, so everyone let their hair down. It couldn’t have been simpler. I also wanted to make the most of this chance to relax with my colleagues. Yet, I was acutely aware that it was Maundy Thursday, in the holiest week of the year for Christians. As a Catholic, I felt I could not party at that time.
I did not resent my employers for that unfortunate clash of dates. They are good people. It was a just missed opportunity for them to respect the faith of their employees, due to a lack of information.
But looking back, I now realise that Maundy Thursday empowered me. It made me realise I had a role to play in helping to create a more inclusive workplace environment. I decided to invest more time into trying to understand where we didn’t communicate well, and how to build bridges between people of faith and those of no-faith.
Why build an inclusive workplace?
Building inclusive work environments is not just ‘trendy’; it’s not something big brands do to ‘look good’. It is a necessary condition for organisations to be sustainable – that is, more productive, and able to retain employees.
Even from a practical point of view: inclusivity ensures a better turnout at your events and meetings!
Recently one of my clients organised their annual gathering on the day of a Hindu feast: on that evening, 17 members did not attend because they were celebrating with their family. The client had to organise a second meeting later in the month to reach the quorum and proceed to key votes. By being inclusive in the first place, they would have saved effort, time and money.
Inclusive environments also help employees be more productive: we will give our best when we feel safe and respected.
I saw this very clearly during the debate on faith schools in 2018. My work had no link with that topic, not even remotely; yet, every day, I found myself caught in the middle of heated discussions started by the same colleague who had a personal interest in this cause. As I felt emotionally unsafe, I stepped back from the group when she was around; I started taking my lunch break on my own; and I left the office as soon I could. I was less involved in the job, though it could have been easily prevented.
Ultimately, inclusivity matters because it brings respect and solidarity into the heart of our teams. We are neither robots nor tools: we are human beings, with hopes, drivers and hot buttons. When we are allowed to express them more transparently, when we show our real ‘me’, we’re allowing everyone to work better together.
Allowing me to be with God at work is like allowing my cogs to get some oil when I get stuck. When I work well, that’s good for my employer and good for my colleagues.
Initiatives that work
From past and current work experience, I’ve listed a few ideas that can create a greater sense of belonging:
- Have a faith calendar. Someone in the team keeps track of the main religious feasts, and we flag them well in advance. It avoids booking meetings that would clash with people’s religious obligations. We also start these days by wishing a good day to everyone (‘Happy Hanukkah!’ ‘Happy Eid!’), together with a link explaining what this feast means for the faithful. It’s a good way to learn, and it helps win pub quizzes! In doing this, one does not necessarily have to agree with other religions. One might even consider them mistaken, in some or many of their tenets. But it is much better to begin with an attitude of loving respect and this can in time lead to many a healthy discussion. Even in disagreement in certain areas, one can still learn so much from other believers.
- Celebrate religious feasts together. We encourage faith groups to organise lunch-buffets in the common area when they have religious feasts; they bring dishes as they wish. Food is a great bridge builder! People of faith are happy to celebrate with a broader group. People of no faith are invited to enjoy the feast with no strings attached. We don’t have to talk about faith: it’s all about being together. These events really help break barriers.
- Have a prayer room. It can be small, as long as it is quiet. It should be free to use without booking it, but every faith group should be able to use it fairly. Employees can bring prayer materials – like a sacred book or a rug – and store them safely in a cupboard or in a corner of the room. Faith groups should be mindful about how they use this space, so that each denomination can come at any time, without feeling overwhelmed or pushed out by other faiths.
- Set up a prayer group. In my current position, I’m part of a Christian prayer group which meets every Wednesday for half an hour before work. We have an email address, to which everyone can send their prayer requests. We always pray for our managers. Currently we receive many requests for people with Covid-19 and frontline workers we know. It works really well, and is very respected by people of no faith who might even ask us to pray for their needs.
- Organise topical events. After the terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka, we invited a charity working in that country to talk about life there. They talked about religious persecution, but they also gave insights into the culture and the people. It was moving to see some people with no faith offering spontaneously to pray for the victims.
- Launch a study group. We have a 30-minute session every Monday, where we gather with our sandwiches at lunch break. In turn, each one of us prints a passage from the Bible and leads the discussion. Personally, this is the initiative that sustains me the most. There is something unique and powerful about journeying together as followers of Christ; I feel supported by my community, even at work.
- Have a ‘Faith Champion’ – or volunteer to be one. The Faith Champion raises awareness about faith to the wider group. They reach out to representatives of the various faiths, to ensure they are included in the relevant discussions. Also, they are available to talk with anyone who has an issue related to their faith in the workplace. It is reassuring for employees to know they have someone to talk to if they need it.
Tips to make these initiatives more inclusive
This is a long list: it is neither exhaustive, nor mandatory … and you may have even more ideas!
Don’t feel under pressure to do too much. Depending on the size of your team and of your organisation, you may be able to manage just one project, and that’s fine. The simple fact that there is an initiative to break the taboo around faith will help people feel included.
Remain open to everyone. All faiths and people of no faiths should feel equally welcome to any event. They should see posters or flyers advertising the initiative well in advance. From experience, flyers/posters work better: don’t flood everyone email inbox, you’d be hated soon.
When you say ‘everyone is invited’, mean it: it includes managers and people from other teams. That’s one of the great gifts of these projects: they break down silos and open the doors to other parts of the organisation. This is invaluable to meet new people and learn more about what they do.
At these events, you may want to talk about faith, but don’t feel like you have to. Personally, I would not initiate the discussion about my beliefs; I would rather wait until someone brings up the topic (if they do at all). People may be here to learn and if so, they will let you know. But most likely, they come to ‘see what it looks like’, to mingle, and enjoy themselves. Don’t be disappointed. That’s ok. The simple fact that they know someone of faith who is a decent, respectful person can be a win.
Volunteer! You may read this and think: “it’s all very well, but nothing ever happens in my organisation”. I reply: do it and persevere! You will be surprised how positive employers are about these initiatives: they will rarely say no; or at least, they will allow you to reframe the project in a way that works better for the context. You may start with a couple of people only, and that’s ok. Colleagues may need time to feel comfortable joining; but they will be grateful that you are here. Top tip: coffee and biscuits help!
Last but not least: in all circumstances, remember that you are at work, so don’t overdo it. We’re not in the street evangelising passers-by. We’re not with our congregation. Ultimately, we’re at work together to deliver ‘something’. We want to build inclusive workplaces because we want to work better. But there is a clear line between personal life and work. We will find the support of like-minded people when we finish the working day. But for now, if you are reading this article during your lunch break, it’s time to close: your next meeting is about to start!
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