Feature |

A Sense of Belonging

Heeding the Call for Religious Diversity

Religion once was a forbidden topic at work. Now, weaving employees’ faiths and beliefs, along with corresponding practices, into the fabric of an organization is one of the latest advancements in the evolution of workplace diversity and inclusion.

Workplace diversity has long since progressed from making sure your workforce numbers match a certain racial/ethnic mix. Helping ensure employees have a deeper sense of belonging is the baseline expectation now for workplace diversity/inclusion, according to Sumreen Ahmad, global change management lead at Accenture, a professional services company.

The religious diversity movement is addressing a growing desire to work for organizations whose operations are consistent with one’s worldview, said the Rev. Mark Fowler, deputy CEO for the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, a nonsectarian not-for-profit leader in workplace religious diversity education and training. “People are looking for a place to work where some form of their identity is not threatened,” Fowler said. “With a growing Millennial presence, there is an increased commitment to justice and equality. 

People are looking for ways they can contribute to something they can be proud of. If not spiritual, something that reflects their beliefs and sense of empathy.

“In the current sociopolitical climate with a deference to bigotry, it’s important how you communicate your company’s dedication to workplace diversity. There are workforce, workplace and marketplace bottom-line implications for proactively addressing religious diversity.”

Ted Childs, a former vice president of global diversity at IBM, put it more directly. “The risk for companies who ignore the global issue of religion is loss of talent, loss of marketplace access,” said Childs, a workplace divers consultant. “The relevance of religious diversity may wind up being a matter of business survival.”

People are looking for ways they can contribute to something they can be proud of. If not spiritual, something that reflects their beliefs and sense of empathy.”

Religion is not an easy topic to approach. “For a very long time, the prevailing culture was to not talk about politics or religions,” said Michael Bodson, president and CEO of The Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation

(DTCC), at the 2017 Tanenbaum Religious Diversity Summit. “This is changing and has been for some time, both because of demographic shifts but also because of a generational and cultural rotation that is occurring.”

The numbers point to a need for total rewards professionals to consider how their companies address religion in the workplace. (See “Factors to Consider When Addressing Religion in the Workplace.”)

Secrets to Success

What does a successful religious accommodation program look like? Accenture’s Ahmad and Nadine Augusta, DTCC’s executive director for global diversity and inclusion and corporate responsibility, each described what makes their corporations’ religious inclusion programs work.

Both programs are a natural part of an overall diversity and inclusion (D&I) effort. DTCC has about 7,000 employees in 23 countries providing post-trade financial services. Accenture employs 459,000 people around the world. 

When DTCC leadership asked whether the company was doing everything it should in D&I, religion bubbled to the top. “When we think of diversity and inclusion, we often think of standard dimensions, such as gender and ethnicity,” Augusta said. “Religion has been a part of diversity and inclusion efforts (at DTCC) from early on. At times, it was less formal, such as allowing a flex schedule for religious holidays.” 

However, DTCC realized it needed a formal policy to address its employees’ reluctance to seek accommodations. “The policy reinforces the need to be flexible, but it also provides a formal process for a religious accommodation request,” Augusta said. “Often this request is between an employee and manager. But religion can be polarizing, and the employee might be uncomfortable making a request. As a result, we have included these types of requests in our formal framework, signaling to employees that we are supportive around these needs.”

Religion should be part of an overall diversity and inclusion effort... and, like other diversity efforts, it needs buy-in from senior leadership.

Religious diversity is part of the D&I program that provides DTCC employees an environment that is conducive to doing their best, most innovative work, she said.

DTCC even kept religious accommodation in mind while recovering from a natural disaster. When 2012’s Hurricane Sandy forced the company to seek new New York-area offices, it added dedicated contemplation rooms, a frequent feature of religious accommodation programs.

Religious diversity is part of Accenture’s inclusion efforts to create an “environment where people can bring their whole selves to work and feel comfortable,” Ahmad said. If more Accenture employees feel that sense of belonging, the more likely they are to collaborate and engage, she said.

Much of Accenture’s religious accommodation program has been driven by employee resource groups (ERGs). Started as faith-based groups in 2006, the six separate groups were eventually brought together under the umbrella of what the company now calls its Interfaith ERG.

“Our Interfaith ERG provides intersectionality between faith, corporate citizenship, volunteering and service,” Ahmad said. “It has created a lot of meaningful opportunities for our people.”

One of those opportunities is to have religious practitioners explain a holiday’s significance to colleagues. For example, employees in India who are Hindu shared their perspectives of Diwali, educating those who may not be familiar with the holiday.

“The educational aspects of a religious holiday celebration open the door for more conversation,” Ahmad said. “It takes it (religious diversity) to the next level. We’ve received a lot of positive feedback.”

Accenture’s Interfaith ERG helps workers cope with political and social issues, as well. For example, it “helps provide support in trying times, such as for people worried about the Muslim travel ban and other events that might impact lives outside of the workplace,” Ahmad said.

It also has addressed mindfulness, which is part of many faiths. For example, it offers “digital detox” training, helping people be more in touch with their thoughts by weaning away from overreliance on technology.

Where to Start 

It would be easy to write off religious accommodation programs as limited to only gigantic global corporations that have unlimited resources. But programs can work at and benefit small businesses. Most companies now do business internationally, and domestic employees and clients are more apt to have a variety of beliefs considering the nation’s growing diversity. (See “Religious Diversity Checklist.”)

Religion should be part of an overall D&I effort, not a program unto itself, the experts agreed. They also pointed out most formalized religious diversity programs prohibit proselytizing.

And, like other diversity efforts, it needs buy-in from senior leadership. The fact that Bodson, DTCC’s president and CEO, was the keynote speaker at the 2017 Tanenbaum summit reinforced the importance of religious diversity throughout the corporation, Augusta said.

Often, the smallest change can make a big difference that’s appreciated by both the affected workers and their colleagues, Fowler said.

Ex-IBM exec Childs said creativity and collaboration with a multicultural team can provide such solutions. For example, shortly after 9/11, a Muslim woman with a master’s degree in computer science was hired by IBM, but there was a problem when it came time for her ID-badge photo. The male security officer taking the photo asked her to remove her veil. She said she couldn’t. The multicultural team came up with a solution — a female employee took her photo without a veil. The woman then had two security badges: one with a veil she displayed on the job and a second, without a veil, she carried on her person. If her identity was challenged, a woman manager would go into a room with her to check her ID without a veil.

We are quick to talk about bringing your whole self to work, but we need to understand what goes with it.” - Sumreen Ahmad, Accenture

The appreciation from unaffected colleagues can be seen when IBM added foot-washing facilities in restrooms for Muslim workers at its Rochester, Minn., and Toronto operations. “I got letters from people who said they were very proud to work for a company that would respect the beliefs of our new workers,” Childs said.

But don’t expect an overnight success or immediate results when initiating a religious diversity program. (See “Steps in Starting a Religious Diversity Program.”)

“It’s a journey,” Ahmad said. “You are not going to flip the switch and make it happen tomorrow. Take the long view. Don’t do it because it’s trendy. There are lessons to be learned along the way. You need to have a sense of resilience and be able to adapt to the environment. We are quick to talk about bringing your whole self to work, but we need to understand what goes with it.”

Despite the challenges of developing religious diversity programs, the payback is worth it, advocates agree.


“There are companies that avoid the topic altogether out of concern for alienating their customers or employees,” Bodson said in that 2017 speech. “This is the wrong way to approach the issue. Embracing the religious diversity of your employees is about respect and dignity — not the endorsement of any set of beliefs but the recognition that employees of differing beliefs can work together and thrive alongside each other.”

Speaking practically, “It can be a real differentiator in the war on talent,” Ahmad said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘I can’t believe we do that here’.”

Jim Fickess Jim Fickess writes and edits for WorldatWork.


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