Entering the evaded minefield: Addressing religious diversity in the workplace

Most of the world’s significant conflicts of the past 15 years were based on religious differences. So, why would companies declare religion as a non-issue? So far, diversity strategies rarely went beyond practical arrangements around religious holidays, clothing or food. As a consequence of the cold-shouldering, religious issues have kept creeping into societies and workplaces, leading to a perceived threat of the respective mainstream groups. The General Social Survey (GSS) in the US has recently found out, that nearly half of all evangelical Christians feel discriminated against. The French Association of Diversity Managers has produced a booklet exploring religious diversity with a dialogue approach.

The bare figures of the American social survey (GSS) will be alarming for Diversity practitioners: 36 percent of those who identified as evangelical said they were the targets of rumours and gossip, 44 percent said they were treated rudely and half of them said they had been lied to at work. 59 % claimed the discrimination they suffered was just as bad as discriminating acts on other groups, which had actually declined. When looking for answers to this perception, one will first recognise that religious diversity within most western societies – and hence companies – has increased over the past decades. On the one hand, the general awareness for different beliefs and the many deep-level questions around faith has increased as a consequence of this trend. Numerous reports in the media about everyday life when practicing different religions have educated many. Surprising side-effects of this expanded knowledge include a realisation of the formerly only and still dominant mainstream group. This can – and does – easily result in questioning and challenging traditional views of that group. Moreover, the majority group is suddenly exposed to a lot more diversity also representing a whole set of different values, which may or may not be in line with their own. Acknowledging these is often seen or felt as reverse discrimination.

The French Association of Diversity Managers (AFMD) has produced a booklet that looks at the specifics religion in the workforce, which can lead to conflict and should be part of a holistic Diversity programme. Clothes and accessories (headscarf, Star of David, crucifix), nutrition and feast days or a special daily routine (e.g. for prayers) include the commonly known specifics of many religions, when practiced. Companies with diverse workforces should obviously consider these aspects even if they are not sure about concrete numbers of employees practising each of the religions – even neutrality or laicism might be considered paramount. The AFMD booklet includes short descriptions of some practical guides existing in companies including EDF, France Telecom Orange, Group Casion, IBM France and La Poste. But the authors also say that most guides give little information while giving advice about how to avoid fundamental discussions. This approach would obviously not be sufficient to get to a climate of valuing religious differences in the same way as others are valued – let alone active inclusion. On these aspects, the AFMD booklet recommends dialogue and moderation as vital element of success. Concerns and complains should be taken seriously and communication must highlight that the attention to some specific needs of one group does not lead to the discrimination of another.