Religious Diversity is one of the most challenging, controversial, and complex issues of our time. Few diversity professionals speak on the topic, but it’s my passion and I recently gave a seminar on it at a conference at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Why had these business professionals and administrators chosen this particular session to attend? Some were curious, “I have a general interest in religious diversity, especially learning about other religious traditions.” Others were focused on the application of new information, “I want to understand more about religious diversity so that I can better interact with people from all religious backgrounds.” Our discussion focused not only on the university, but also on business, “I need to increase my understanding and ability to competently work with clients who identify as religious.”
Their emphasis on cultural competence and interpersonal communication illustrated their intelligence in this combustible issue. No one should want to end up in the legal arena over religious expression in the workplace. Yet, we shouldn’t be surprised that thousands of such lawsuits are registered with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission EEOC every year. Workplace situations regarding religion are highly emotional. Better to communicate and negotiate these issues before they enter the grey areas of religious discrimination.
The definition of the two major issues regarding religious discrimination, harassment and accommodation, are vague terms and open to considerable interpretation. Harassment may be the easier of the two to define. It refers to activities that are “severe or pervasive” and create a “hostile or offensive work environment”. Those actions can range from religious jokes that insulted and demeaned to unauthorized religious e-mail blasts on company computers.
Companies need written policies to protect themselves and their workers by defining harassing behavior and the consequences. Written policies can also address accommodation issues. Accommodation requires that religious expression & activities accommodated unless undue hardship to employer’s business. How is “undue hardship” defined? What does it mean when it applied to religious traditions? Here is where a lack of awareness, particularly of religious calendars, can result in poor decisions that discriminate without the intent of doing so.
Religious literacy builds interpersonal relationships with a diverse workforce, vendors, and clientele. The cost of ignorance isn’t only in law suits, but in a lack of engagement. There are multiple ways that well-meaning companies disengage, but scheduling is a major culprit. Don’t hold a conference on a major holy day and penalize those who can’t attend. Don’t have a job fair on a day when diverse vendors can’t set up booths. Don’t schedule an e-mail blast to customers on a holy day of a religious community.
What happens when religious calendars aren’t respected? If employees feel they’re not valued, they leave. The organization is diminished in its talent and incurs the expense of replacing it. If vendors are inconvenienced, they leave. The organization not only loses needed vendors, but the communities that these vendors represent may remove themselves as customers. That organization is left with fewer marketing options. If students can’t show up, their grades suffer and they may leave. The education organization’s reputation may be diminished in that religious community and it’s enrollment goes elsewhere.
How can you plan more efficiently knowing that timing is everything? Consider multicultural calendars as a basic tool for building respectful relationships. Whether online or on your desk, paying attention to these calendars can boost diverse teams and their collaborative efforts. Awareness can generate good will and offset unintended mistakes. As we approach the new year, plan for culturally competent engagement and your organization’s success.
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