“Oh, we don’t talk about that here.”
These are difficult words to hear when working with companies who have hopes and dreams of becoming truly inclusive workplaces. Yet, as a practitioner of diversity and inclusion, I hear this phrase, or its variation, frequently: “There are just some things best left at home – put away – personal, or in secret”.
I grew up a closeted liberal in America’s politically and culturally red state, Oklahoma. From a very young age, I inherently knew a black-and-white version of the “truth” as taught by my heavily evangelical, conservative, Christian community. In Middle America, talking about the Church, or one’s church, is a norm at work. At any given time, one expects to be invited to his or her friend’s church for an autumn festival or Christmas pageant. Despite my deep reservations about some churches’ interpretation of theology, I was never offended by these casual invitations. In fact, I understood them to mean the host Christian thought highly of me, at least enough to think I might be worth saving from the evils of the world.
Upon my arrival in Washington, DC, and my rise in a much more diverse workforce, I quickly began to see patterns where religion, especially the tradition out of which I grew up, were met with a reserved angst. When the topic of a person’s religion surfaced – Christian or otherwise, it was rarely met with thoughtful inquiry. In most cases, it became a quick coaching moment for a supervisor or human resources professional to politely quash the conversation.
This response was not always unwanted or unwarranted. Religious people can blur lines of professionalism depending upon their fervor and personal agenda. However, religion for many equates to culture, as it does for this Oklahoma kid.
At Cook Ross, we utilize a tool called the Identity Web to help leaders within organizations determine their influences and what drives their decision-making. Religion is a prominent feature of many characteristics of human development and experience. It is inescapable and ever more challenging depending on the size and scope of the company or organization.
Most leaders I consult desire to form bold organizations in which people can be their whole-selves. We spend a considerable amount of our time at work which can mean we spend a lot of time pretending to be something we are not. A place where one must pretend to belong, as opposed to belonging, can be highly toxic. So, what do we do? None of us want to work in an environment that feels like a “big tent revival”, but working in an environment devoid of respect for different beliefs does not suit either. Is there an ecumenical middle ground that can satisfy most people and make our workplaces more enjoyable and free?
Yes! Like any worthy cause, advocating for respectful inquiry of religion in a professional setting can lead to a more holistic, sensitive, and innovative workplace. Here are just a few, simple ideas to jumpstart your creativity on employee engagement around religion:
1. Host meditative gatherings. There are numerous benefits that have been linked to contemplative practice including stress reduction. Recruit a group of leaders to guide group meditation modeled after the traditions of prayer and reflection shared by many religions. Track participants before-and-after results. Make sure to set a few ground rules in negotiating the time.
2. Host cultural and religious awareness activities – encourage teams or departments to host potlucks with themes based on different cultures representative of their team, or within the client-base or stakeholders linked to that department.
3. React to the world. If there is a major world event linked to religion, encourage the formation of educational fora. Invite experts or religious people from multiple vantage points to share their experience. This also works when there is great tragedy, giving people the intentional opportunity to gather and pray during times of trouble is not only protected by the EEOC, it is also a measure of a thoughtful employer.
4. Holidays. Don’t just pinpoint Christmas and Passover for corporate communications, make exploring culture a type of trivia or fun facts in newsletters, email blasts, etc.
5. Change your tone on topics considered to be taboo. As with many “controversial” topics, whether at home or work, sometimes the tone and fear of the subject is much worse than being thoughtful or positive about their inclusion. Challenge your people managers to think about how they will promote religious acceptance in the workplace, as opposed to painting religion as automatic grounds for harassment claims.
Ultimately, if your efforts come from a genuine place, then you are hitting your target. Be bold! Try new things. And, most importantly, let people know that who they are is valuable to your business. Blessings to your journey.
Ben Mann is a Project Manager for Cook Ross. In addition, Ben is a seminary student and Create Scholar at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the recent recipient of a grant partially funded by the Lilly Foundation to explore solutions to Diversity & Inclusion issues in faith communities. Ben serves on the national board of the Gay Christian Network.