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Monday, May 20, 2024

Respecting religious diversity

Paul Anderson-Walsh highlights the wide-ranging benefits that flow from fostering a genuine, religiously inclusive workplace

 

The saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” is an imperative for those of us who are committed to fostering inclusive working environments. When it comes to religion and belief, we are prone to pre-judge, or to put it more starkly, we can be prejudiced, allowing preconceived opinions to form unwarranted judgements. We are quick to create false narratives based on external appearances – judging a person by, for instance, their head coverings, these judgements often have unintended consequences. When people perceive that they don’t fit in where they want to belong, they will often make forced and unsustainable edits and adjustments to mask and cover those aspects of their social identity that they feel are stigmatised, diminishing themselves in the process.

The invisible cost of fitting-in

In a workshop focused on belonging, a pivotal moment arose when a young Muslim woman shared her struggle with her workplace’s culture, which implicitly mandated socialising with executives over drinks, a practice that forced her into compromising her faith. “I am so conflicted” she said, “I go home having drunk and risk censure from my family but if I don’t join in, I risk not being accepted at work.”  There was a long silent pause in the room. The silence was broken by a young man. “I hate it too. The drinking culture here is a real problem.”

This revelation sparked a broader conversation about the psychologically corrosive effects of exclusion and the compromises individuals make to fit into professional environments.

Later, in another workshop I was facilitating about authenticity, a senior leader questioned what he called the insistence on being authentic at work, protesting that he wanted to maintain a distinction between his personal and professional personas. I explained the insistence was not that people are forced to be authentic but rather that they are not forced to be inauthentic. His countenance changed dramatically. He was horrified: “Nobody should feel they need to be inauthentic – anywhere.” And that is the point.

These discussions underscore the complex interplay between personal identity and professional success, highlighting the importance of creating environments where everyone can thrive without sacrificing their core values.

The visible benefits of fitting-together

There are many and various invisible social identities, e.g., disability, sexual orientation, military experience, socioeconomic background, marital status, nation origin etc. but few, if any, are as sensitive and have more riding on it than a person’s religious and or spiritual identity – for some this is literally a matter of (eternal) life and death.

Acknowledging the challenges of embracing religious and belief identities in the workplace, it’s important to highlight that the benefits significantly outweigh the risks. For example, many faith traditions promote ethical behaviour, integrity and a commitment to justice – qualities that enhance a company’s reputation and service. Destigmatizing religion and belief can contribute to a more inclusive atmosphere, rooted in what we term “compassionate efficiency.” This approach, underscored by all major faiths, emphasises compassion and empathy, enabling managers to forge deeper connections with their employees and promote a supportive environment. A strong faith background often equips individuals to handle challenges positively, inspiring their teams during difficult times. The principles of faith — such as a solid work ethic, social responsibility, and moral courage – benefit everyone, fostering a culture where employees are committed and motivated to uphold high standards. Moreover, faith provides the moral courage to advocate for what is right, crucial for leaders tasked with making tough decisions that impact both employees and the community.

In a culture of inclusion, people are evaluated based on performance and contributions, not personal characteristics, or beliefs, reinforcing that diversity, including religious diversity, is valued. When that happens, all our prayers are answered.

Paul Anderson-Walsh is the CEO and co-founder at The Centre for Inclusive Leadership

 

 

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