Most forward-thinking organizations encourage their employees to bring their “whole selves” to work and recognize that employees are happier and businesses perform better when they do. It stands to reason that an environment in which everyone feels valued, is valued and has their uniqueness acknowledged can benefit the business as a whole.

Yet, where religion and belief are concerned, most organizations have yet to scratch the surface of the journey toward inclusiveness. In many workplaces, it is generally accepted that religion is left at the door; it’s private and not something to be discussed during working hours, or at least not openly and with ease. There is also a prevailing assumption that the workplace reflects a largely secular society.

Research tells a different story: Currently, 84 percent of the global population has a religious affiliation, and this number is on the rise. While today, seven of the G8 nations have Christian-majority populations, by 2050, only one of the five leading economies is projected to have a majority Christian population – the U.S. Indeed, a 2013 study highlighted multiple issues pertaining to a perceived stigma about religious belief in the workplace, finding that:

  • One-third of respondents have seen incidents of religious bias in the workplace or have personally experienced them.
  • More than half of American workers believe there is a lot of discrimination against Muslim workers.
  • Nearly six in 10 atheists say that people look down on their beliefs, as do nearly one-third of white evangelical Protestants and non-Christian religious workers.

It is clear there is a huge way to go in addressing religious literacy in the workplace. Training organizations are, however, well-positioned to make a meaningful impact on unhelpful practices and perceptions, and, in turn, to improve day-to-day employee culture – and even overall business performance.

Literacy, Not Education

A drive toward greater religious inclusion might naturally inspire organizations to consider educating employees about religion, such as briefing them on specific beliefs, festivals or dietary requirements. However, the spectrum of belief and practice is as diverse as the people who hold those beliefs, and organizations must adopt a more nuanced, flexible outlook in approaching matters of faith and religious belief. There is no one-size-fits-all.

This is where religious literacy – rather than education – is invaluable. Organizations need to reach a position where individuals feel that their beliefs are respected, so they are comfortable in openly discussing their beliefs and any issues of sensitivity that their employers might need to address. Diversity and inclusiveness training has a key role to play as part of this drive, and even small practical changes can have a positive impact on a business’ diversity culture.

Moving Faith Forward

You can help your organization take effective steps toward religious literacy and its perceptions of religious diversity, starting from the observation that there is a lack of understanding about religion and belief in the workplace. However, it is not necessarily about introducing more religion into the workplace, but rather having the confidence and skills to effectively and positively respond to religion and belief as they arise.

Equip leaders with the mindset to consider matters relating to your business’ approach to religion in the workplace, such as the following key questions:

  • Are employees using everyday language that some people may find offensive?
  • How can religious believers and nonbelievers be treated with equal respect?
  • Do travel requirements compromise an individual’s ability to practice his or her faith, and how can you adjust them to accommodate it?
  • Do food options accommodate faith-related dietary needs?

Overall, religious literacy is about learning to sensitively approach the diversity of religion and beliefs already at large in the workplace. While we have come a long way in perspectives on workplace diversity in recent decades, it should now be a business imperative to ensure that religious literacy is addressed and embraced as part of the corporate equality agenda. Organizations that successfully and effectively build religious literacy into workplace culture can expect to improve staff cohesion, satisfaction and performance.

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