The Forum for Workplace Inclusion is the largest Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Accessibility conference in the US, attracting fantastic speakers and thought leaders who bring fresh ideas and perspectives to the DEI work. This year I was lucky enough to attend, not only as a participant but also as a presenter in partnership with Jen Kilps of Minnesota Multifaith Network and Lara Trubowitz of the Anti-Defamation League. Together we crafted a program to give participants a taste of Encounter’s Discovery Week program, visiting a local Hindu temple, a mosque, and a synagogue. We discussed workplace inclusion around spiritual identities, religious literacy, and why so many of us find the topic of religion uncomfortable to bring up in a work environment. Below I want to share some of what the day entailed and some key issues that the group discussed.
The Hindu temple was fantastic inside (no photos allowed) and attendees learned a lot about a tradition they did not know well.
We began the program with a short talk about religious literacy and some of the distortions in how we understand religion generally and specifically in a work context. We then boarded the bus and visited a Hindu temple. Our Hindu guide did an amazing job explaining his religion and taking us around the fantastic temple. Our participants were surprised to see a few Jain shrines and learn that Hinduism can comfortably accommodate other Indian traditions. And then, at the end of the tour, the most wonderful thing happened. Our guide followed us to the mosque. He wanted to see what we were seeing.
At the mosque, we witnessed prayer and talked about how to be thoughtful towards Muslim colleagues fasting during this month.
At the mosque, we again had two wonderful guides, including the imam who did a beautiful Qur’anic recitation for our participants. We were also fortunate to witness prayer time. Even though it is Ramadan and our hosts were neither eating nor drinking, they generously had water available for us.
Finally, we went to the synagogue where Lara from ADL spoke on antisemitism and the local synagogue staff showed us their beautiful building. The visits were amazing, thanks partly to Jen Kilps who was instrumental in putting the day together.
Participants were give the opportunity to see the Torah scrolls after a talk on antisemitism.
There were a few significant takeaways that I thought stood out today:
- Most organizations are just beginning to consider religious inclusion in their DEI initiatives. Many are still just realizing they need to start thinking about this more seriously.
- Inclusive scheduling is an important issue for organizations. Inclusive scheduling is not merely providing flex days for religious holidays. It includes ensuring the firm or your team doesn’t have major events on major holidays (i.e. not doing product releases on Diwali or scheduling offsites on Eid) as these conflicts will compromises employees’ ability to be involved in projects and company events. It also includes, where possible, providing flexible hours to Muslim employees during Ramadan so they can work while colleagues might be sleeping. And it also requires thinking about how some Jewish holidays are more than one day (e.g. Rosh Hashanah) or how Jews are supposed to sit shiva for seven days after a death of a close family member. Our calendar and many of related business policies are still overwhelmingly influenced by Christianity.
- For companies to respond well to incidents either at their firm or in the wider world, their leadership teams need to have done the work upfront in terms of religious literacy education and preparation so they are not reacting desperately and reaching for help only when an issue does come up.
- In 20 years of doing this work, the power of being invited into sacred spaces never ceases to amaze me. Being welcomed into a place which holds such meaning requires vulnerability from both the host, and the guest. And from that, curiosity and connection easily take hold and change the stories we know about each other.
It was an absolute pleasure to spend this time with people from organizations across the United States who are eager to learn about religious literacy and are looking for ways to nurture it in their own workplaces. There is a growing understanding of the importance of religious inclusion and organizations just need a bit of support in navigating new terrain. The payoff will be more inclusive work environments for all.