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How to talk about religion at work

October 22, 2022
Diversity & Inclusion

I’m a Brown man in America who wears his turban to work every day. For as long as I can remember, I’ve received surprised glances and comments about my appearance — and I’d like to think that I’ve learned how to respond to this initial curiosity. Yet, a few months ago, I walked into a client’s office to conduct a workshop on inclusion, and I was immediately caught off-guard.

Gesturing at my turban, the client said: “I didn’t know you were doing the whole religion thing. I hope you’re not here to convert people.”

I laughed off her comment as if to assure this person that, like her, I thought talking about faith at work was ridiculous and off-limits. I wasn’t there to talk about religion, let alone my personal commitments as a Sikh. But deep down, the conversation made me uneasy, and her remark made me wonder: Why does religion make us so uncomfortable, and what are we missing out by not talking about it?

Religion at Work
Last month, more than a hundred Sikh security guards in Toronto were demoted or fired after the city laid down a new mask mandate for professionals working in homeless shelters. According to the directive, all employees were required to shave their beards to fit the masks properly. The no-beard mandate goes against the Sikh religious practice of not shaving or cutting hair. It forced the Sikh guards to make an unfair and unnecessary choice between their faith and livelihood.

The policy received immediate and significant pushback for workplace discrimination, and within days, the city backtracked by offering the security guards a religious accommodation, reinstating the security guards, and issuing a formal apology. The guards are back at work and the city has moved on — but the incident raises a larger question for religious minorities: As we continue to talk about the importance of diversity, inclusion, and belonging at work (and in the larger society), when will religious minorities be seen as an integral part of these conversations?

Through my work leading diversity and inclusion conversations in numerous corporations, I’ve realized that there are certain aspects of identity that many people feel comfortable discussing at work — gender, race, and sexual orientation. However, other, more intersectional identities — like those related to disability, caste, class, age, and religion — are often overlooked. Religion, in fact, is not just overlooked, but often deliberately avoided. Even I, a scholar of religion and a person of faith, am reticent to have conversations about it with my colleagues. The truth is that talking about religion can be tricky. It’s personal. It’s messy. It’s sensitive. In many countries, it carries a real risk to life and liberty. How can we talk about religion without potentially causing offense?

The problem is that this attitude causes harm to already marginalized communities. By ignoring the problem, we further exacerbate it. Many of us make assumptions about religions we don’t understand, which can then show up as microaggressions or racism against our colleagues and clients. We may end up perpetuating negative, and often false, stereotypes, or follow in the footsteps of Toronto and overlook accommodations that make our workplaces inclusive and psychologically safe for all. Worse, failing to listen to and understand the experiences of people from religious minorities alienates much of the workforce.

So, how do we start addressing religion at work?

Managers, both new and seasoned, have the opportunity to lead the charge. You can set the tone for your team and create an inclusive culture that values people from various identities. While it may be challenging to navigate at first, your conscious effort will go a long way.

Here are three ways to tactfully approach religious diversity and inclusion on your team. READ MORE

by Simran Jeet Singh


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