How to support your colleagues of different faiths

April is a month that has several religious and cultural holidays, including:

  • 2nd April to 2nd May - Ramadan
  • 5th April - Qingming Festival, Chinese ancestral worshipping day
  • 10th April - Palm Sunday
  • 14th April - the Sikh and Hindu festival of Vaisakhi
  • 15th to 23rd April - Passover
  • 16th April - the start of a 3-day Buddhist festival known as Theravada New Year
  • 17th April - Easter Sunday

Religious awareness and discrimination is often overlooked when discussing policies and diversity in the workplace, especially in comparison to other protected characteristics. But sadly, we know religious discrimination happens. Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are particularly persistent problems in the UK. Anti-Sikh sentiment, Hinduphobia and even discrimination against Buddhists and Christians (known as Christophobia) are also prevalent.

Our research shows that 19% of people have been asked to not discuss religion at work. The highest number of respondents to this question identify as Asian or Black. This is a worrying statistic because if those respondents are religious, this can be classed as religious discrimination.

The Equality Act 2010 regulates direct and indirect discrimination and harassment on the grounds of religion or belief, and victimisation. This also includes non-belief.

In this post we will look at ways in which employers can seek to improve religious and cultural awareness to help prevent discrimination or misunderstandings.

Education is key to spreading awareness and acceptance of other people’s differences and faiths:

  • Hold diversity training sessions that focus on religion and belief. Employees can lead these themselves if they wish, although it’s worth thinking about how you remunerate staff that lead these sessions and networks. Often the work to improve inclusion and diversity in organisations is led by individuals that are marginalised. This can be exhausting work and could lead to burnout 
  • Compile a list of books, documentaries and websites for your team to read, watch or visit in their own time
  • Work to understand, with input from employees from marginalised groups, what a “zero tolerance policy” would look like for your organisation., Zero tolerance is a term that can cause misunderstanding and potentially bad repercussions for employees who make genuine mistakes, or it can leave individuals who have disclosed an incident feeling let down if for example the person they reported stays at the company 
  • Make sure all employees are aware of what can be deemed unacceptable and offensive before policies are reiterated. This could include connotations associated with certain terms and the tone of voice used

So how can organisations create an inclusive culture and help employees of different faiths feel safe to be who they are at work?

  • Develop your understanding that religion can be a defining aspect of some people’s identities that shapes their behaviour, values and mindset
  • Know that all religions are protected by the Equality Act 2010. Christianity may be the majority religion in many Western countries but Christians can still be discriminated against
  • Revise dress codes so that they accommodate people of different religions and faiths 
  • Extend this to include those who grow their hair and facial hair in line with religious customs and wear religious jewellery or accessories
  • Consider allowing all employees to work from home or have flexible working hours, this might be more comfortable for an employee of faith during a religious festival for example
  • Encourage all employees to take breaks when they need to, including making sure employees of faith who need to pray at certain times of the day feel able to do so
  • Don’t schedule meetings at certain times of the day if you know this clashes with employees religious needs
  • Compromise with employees who need time off for religious observance that meet their requirements or religious laws. Of course this has to be balanced with the needs of the business but there should be a fair policy for all employees requesting time off
  • Set aside prayer rooms if possible for those who may require one
  • If your organisation provides meals to employees, make sure you cater to a diverse workforce
  • During hiring processes make an effort to understand future employees’ needs and make sure they understand the requirements of the role in case conflicts arise
  • Explore the diversity and intersectionality of your employees by communicating with them directly or with staff networks. For example, not all Muslim women wear traditional Muslim clothing. And while a lot of secular Jews do not celebrate or observe most other Jewish festivals, many will celebrate Passover. Some may have reasons for not doing things that they do not have to share these reasons with you

At a recent Diversity & Inclusion Conference we attended, Openreach told attendees that they offer hijabs as part of their uniform to female employees of Muslim faith. These are safe and secure to wear with their uniforms, including under helmets and can be tucked into trousers to stop them riding up. These are currently being trialled with their Ethnic Diversity Network and new recruits and we think are a great example of practising being an inclusive employer!

Although the UK is a majority Christian country, we are still a multi-cultural and multi-faith nation. Easter is consciously considered an important holiday, especially since Good Friday and Easter Monday are both public bank holidays. This should not, however, fuel the idea that any other religious dates are less important.

At Culture Shift we all have public bank holidays off, but we will grant requests from employees who wish to take other religious and cultural holidays off. We took the decision a few years ago to give everyone an extra 5 days off each year, instead of closing down for Christmas, appreciating that not everyone in the business may celebrate Christmas and they may wish to use their days off at another time.

So, just by listening to your employees who practise different religions you can get a better understanding of your diverse workforce and ways you can work with them. Then you can make changes to make your workplace more inclusive for everyone.

By implementing training workshops and working on fully inclusive policies, plus commiting to ongoing improvement, religious discrimination in all of its forms can hopefully be prevented.

Our friends at ENEI (Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion) offer diversity training to members on different topics, including religion and belief. Diversiton offers an award-winning religion and belief workshop and you can also download a toolkit from Inclusive Employers about religion and belief in the workplace.

Should the worst arise, and someone is treated unfairly, on the receiving end of a harmful comment, or seriously discriminated against in your organisation, you should do what you can to encourage a speak up culture, where employees feel safe to let you know about their experiences.

Not every employee will feel able to come forward face to face, so Culture Shift’s anonymous reporting system is a great starting point for organisations who want to develop a speak up culture. We know it’s the preferred method of reporting by many employees, in fact 68% of employees in our recent survey said they would be much more likely to report an instance of bullying/harassment if their workplace had an anonymous platform to do so. That’s two-thirds of the picture you’d be missing if you didn’t offer this option.

To find out more and book a free demo, click here .

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