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Organizations Seeing the Light About Faith at Work

Kathryn Zettel, Senior Manager, Executive Networks, Human Resources Management Research
Winter 2009

Religion may still be an off-limits topic for some people, but organizations can’t afford to ignore the subject. Diversity practitioners attending the Conference Board’s Council on Inclusive Work Environments (CIWE) in November explored the importance of taking steps to accommodate and support faith as part of their organizations' diversity and inclusiveness strategies. Meeting discussions elicited four basic principles for organizations to consider when developing a faith-friendly strategy.

First, religious accommodation is a legal requirement; it is not about endorsing a specific belief system: Deb Volberg Pagnotta, a legal human rights expert, told the CIWE that federal and provincial human rights laws prohibit discrimination in the workplace based on religion. For example, under the Ontario Human Rights Code, employers are required to accommodate employees who are unable to work certain days for religious reasons, unless the employer can demonstrate that it would cause it undue hardship to do so. In addition to religious leave, employers may be asked to consider requests related to issues such as dress code flexibility and breaks for religious observance or prayer.

However, Nouman Ashraf, Director of the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office at the University of Toronto, emphasized that “accommodating and celebrating spiritual traditions and holidays does not constitute an endorsement of a specific belief system, just as supporting women or those with different levels of ability and sexual preferences does not translate into a corporate statement of preferential treatment.”

Second, faith is not too personal for the workplace: Some organizations are hesitant to visibly support religious diversity because faith is “too private.” Consequently, they respond reactively to religious requests rather than proactively supporting faith at work. Yet organizations have grown to support diversity related to grounds such as sexual orientation that were once also considered private or personal. Today, leading organizations recognize that, for many employees, faith is an essential aspect of their identities and an integral part of who they are. Respectfully acknowledging their faith is fundamental to engaging the whole person.

Third, culture and faith are not one and the same: Many organizations assume that religious diversity is addressed under cultural diversity policies and training. Nadir Shirazi, President of Multifacet Diversity Solutions, stressed that religious affiliation is not synonymous with culture; therefore, training in religious diversity is required, particularly as the workplace becomes increasingly multicultural and global. In addition, some workers choose religions or belief systems outside of their cultural and family traditions. Nadir noted that organizations also need to be aware that even people who share the same faith will practise it in different ways.

Fourth, acknowledging religious diversity can benefit the company: The Ford Motor Company, viewed by many as a leader in supporting faith diversity, connects its faith-based efforts to its business goals. Dan Dunnigan, Chair of Ford’s Interfaith Network, told the council how Ford’s faith-friendly initiatives have helped the company attract and retain valued employees. He noted how one Ford employee summed up the benefits: “My faith is the foundation of who I am as a human being. It is deeply important to me and guides how I choose to live my life, the quality of my work, [and] everything I do, and the company honours and embraces that.”

There are also opportunities for organizations to encourage employee faith groups to get involved in community activities, such as food drives, violence prevention programs, and green initiatives. Supporting their efforts can further an organization’s corporate social responsibility goals.

The Final Word

Senior management support and a strong diversity policy that is aligned with business values and goals are prerequisites for creating a faith-inclusive environment. Effective faith diversity strategies are proactive and go beyond the requirements of compliance; they are designed to help the organization value, strengthen, and respect religious differences. A study by the Society for Human Resource Management1 found that employee morale, retention, and loyalty are the factors most positively affected when companies grant religious accommodations to workers. By embracing religious diversity, employers can leverage the unique talents, knowledge, and backgrounds of their workers to gain a competitive advantage during this turbulent economic time.

1 Society for Human Resource Management, 2008 Religion and Corporate Culture: Accommodating Religious Diversity in the Workplace (Alexandria, Virginia: SHRM, 2008).

Kathryn Zettel
Senior Manager, Executive Networks
Human Resources Management Research
613-526-3090, ext. 239
Council on Inclusive Work Environments