No organization says it is serious about inclusion but that they don’t address race, or gender, or disability. But many organizations that espouse the importance of inclusion shy away from religion. In fact, a study showed that over 50% of major organizations don’t even mention religion on their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) pages.
The challenge, of course, is that religious, spiritual and secular identities can be some of the most powerful in our lives, guiding how we navigate life’s challenges, being a key source of family and community connections and providing a foundation for our moral compass.
Organizations which ignore religion in their DEI initiatives are perpetuating a situation where religious minorities are not supported at best, or in worst case scenarios are othered, excluded, harassed or harmed. A study showed that 39% of religious minorities are afraid to speak up at work. This hinders not only voicing their needs for religious inclusion, it also impacts the contributions they are able to make towards the organization’s goals.
There’s been a long-standing cultural norm that we should not speak about religion at work. I believe this stems primarily from three factors.
- We tend to treat religions as a potentially volatile topic. How many times have we heard the comment that religion is at the root of many wars and conflicts? It’s interesting to me that nationalism is equally responsible for wars and conflict, and yet we don’t assume we can’t discuss someone being British as if being British means colonialism. For many religious folks, their religion is about their daily lives, about prayer, and ethics, and rituals, not war or conflict.
- Religion is treated as a private matter. Our cultural norm in North America assumes religion is internal. In reality, religion is rich and varied, often marked by outward symbols, meaningful rituals and joyful celebrations.
- We don’t know enough about religions to be confident speaking about them. Avoiding the topic feels safer than causing harm or embarrassment by opening conversations.
Why does this matter?
Safety – especially psychological safety
Some of Canada’s highest profile hate crimes target religious minorities. Antisemitism has hit an all-time high and there is a real need to address Islamophobia and other religiously-based biases. For many colleagues, especially those who face discrimination because of multiple minority identities, there can be a real concern about physical safety. These concerns follow them to work, where they may be inadvertently discouraged from talking about their reality. It’s difficult for anyone in that situation to do their best. In addition, it can compromise psychological safety, which is the belief that you are fully accepted by the group, the kind of acceptance that puts us at ease and allows us to speak with candor and to freely offer ideas without feeling we will be looked down up or that our standing at work will suffer. Team members who experience psychological safety are more innovative, productive and successful. By addressing religious literacy and inclusion head on, organizations lay the foundation employees need to do their best work and to be supported in bringing their whole selves to work.
For inclusion efforts to bear fruit, they must address and understand intersectionality. Our social identities and the inequities we may face as a result cannot be teased apart. We understand, instinctively, that organizations which truly want to create more equitable workplaces must address all facets of identity and inequity.
Not addressing religious literacy and inclusion in your organization can undermine other DEI efforts. As our collective awareness grows about the importance of inclusion and we become more educated about equity and justice, employees are expecting more from employers. Canada is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world with more religious minorities than in the USA or UK and many immigrants are religious. And younger workers use diversity and inclusion initiatives to assess companies they may want to work with. Organizations are learning that they must address religious identity and nurture religious inclusion in order to attract and retain talent, and create authentic and meaningful relationships with the communities they serve.
If you need help opening this conversation in your organization, I invite you to explore our resources section and reach out if we can be of service.