Lead With Inclusion

How to respect everyone’s beliefs…when everyone’s beliefs are different

April 24, 2024

What level of worship is welcome in your workplace? How can you make work feel safe for different types of religious expression?

Presumably, at the office, you’re there to work in a way that works for everyone. And if you care about inclusion, you want everyone to be able to show up to work authentically.

No one should have to fear revealing their spiritual preferences to the people they deal with every day. But how can you make sure you’re considering everyone, and paying equal respect to all their varied customs?

Lead With Inclusion:

It helps to acknowledge that talking about religion and faith can be awkward. Entering specifically holy or religious spaces is a useful metaphor: you want to make sure you’re attired properly and that you know what customs and expectations are of visitors.

I don’t think it’s inappropriate to enter a religious space you’re not affiliated with as long as you’re self-aware and respectful. In fact, entering such spaces (as long as you make sure you understand the customs first) can be a moving, connecting, and educational experience.

I once did a Downtown LA walking tour, and someone on the tour suggested my friends and I visit a Buddhist temple. It just so happened that this was the day after Lunar New Year—so when we arrived, many buddhists were there practicing. Amidst the praying and incense and good-luck flowers and bare feet, we could have felt very self-conscious or intrusive. Instead, we decided to share in the beauty of these rituals and to make a donation. Our focus was on being quiet and respectful of the space.

I deferred to tradition in the same way at one of the biggest mosques in Abu Dhabi. I put on the proper religious attire so that my arms, legs, and hair were covered. During my city tour in Spain, I covered my arms and removed my hat to enter a cathedral. And while in Hong Kong, I removed my shoes and refrained from speaking as the space we entered required silence.

In each instance I felt fortunate to take in the beauty of these holy spaces, and witness how different people practice. Taking this metaphor to work can help ease awkwardness or uncertainty being inclusive around faith. Self-awareness, curiosity and respect go a long way toward making people comfortable observing their faith-based practices at work.

Still, spirituality in the workplace is more complicated than entering an explicitly religious space like a temple or mosque. We don’t want to make anyone we work with feel like their practices are unwelcome (especially for those in religious minorities).

Be an Inclusive Leader:

Thankfully, there are ways to be inclusive of faith at work, even if you’re not yet completely familiar with everyone’s religious needs. And as usual, inclusive practices benefit far more people than any particular group they are meant to include (see #3 for a specific example):

  1. Lead More Conversations. It’s important to start asking more questions about what makes people at work feel accepted. Here at Rework Work, we started a 100K Conversations Campaign—the goal is to lead 100K conversations about inclusion in the workplace, so why not start with religious preferences? For instance, we’re asking what religious holiday we don’t already get time off for that some wish we did. You might assume (bias alert) we’ll get answers about Muslim or Jewish holidays, but if you do something similar at your offices, challenge yourself not to make that assumption. There are Christian holidays that most US jobs don’t have off (like Good Friday.) There are also many religious holidays you might not even know about that are important to your colleagues and direct-reports.
  1. Make Holidays Flexible. I used to assume that everyone wanted Christmas Day off—after all, who hates a day off? But some people might prefer to work that day and take time off on a day that’s more significant to them. Rather than offering fixed days off, like Thanksgiving or Christmas for US-based employers, offer employees a bank of holiday-time (also called “floating holidays“) they can take when they want to. Depending on the kind of organization you run, shifting your holiday mindset can help with staffing. If you run a retail store, knowing more about the religious or cultural days your employees really value can lead to increased work satisfaction for them, and increased coverage (and profits) for you.
  1. Consider Diets and Dress Codes. Unlike at a cathedral or temple, no one in the workplace should be asked to follow another religion’s rules. No one should feel like the odd person out, or afraid to express their own customs. For instance, not everybody drinks alcohol (for religious or personal reasons—inclusive practices benefit diverse people). Do you have non alcoholic beverages available at your events? How about catering—do you offer vegan options? How about clothing—is your current dress code so restrictive (whether written or implied) that someone may not feel comfortable wearing their religious garb? Authentic attire can feel risky for those whose beliefs aren’t considered as mainstream. Make it clear that diverse expressions of custom, including clothes, are welcome. I share more in “Should workplaces have dress codes?” for Business Insight (the first page is in German, but the second is in English).

For a primer on religious and cultural days that may be unfamiliar, download Rework’s 2024 Inclusion at Work Calendar. It’s a great reference if you’re considering making updates to your paid holiday schedule, or choosing the #2 approach above.

Now I’d love to hear from you in the comments: what has your workplace done to help people of all faith’s feel welcome and included? If your faith is a minority in the country where you live (and if you’re comfortable sharing) what would help you feel more welcome and included at work?

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