Does Religious Diversity Have a Future? – by Deborah Levine & Terry Howard

Despite an increase in lawsuits related to religious expression and workplace discrimination, religious diversity is an area of Diversity & Inclusion often missing from leadership development.  The silence is due to lack of exposure and to fear, perhaps well-founded, that religious diversity training may actually increase animosity in the workplace, rather than build bridges. Given the recent Supreme Court ruling sanctioning public prayer as an American tradition, a tradition that has often been Christian, the role of diverse religions in the US is increasingly murky and contentious.


Initiating religious diversity training resembles a high-wire act without a net.  As the United States becomes more diverse culturally, there is also an increasing diversity of faith traditions with growing membership. Expertise dealing with religious diversity is sorely needed.  However, those who go forward with religious diversity education are few and far between.  They need to share ideas and strategies on an ongoing basis, supporting and mentoring others in the process.  And thus, I share my conversations with Terry Howard, Diversity & Inclusion Director and Storyteller at Texas Instruments.

I am well aware that there are regional differences shaping the work that Terry and I do. Here in the South, where Christianity provides much of the raw material for social, political, and economic interaction, there is little active interfaith education beyond pulpit exchanges in religious institutions. However, the influx of international businesses, employees and their families has increased interest and I’ve had invitations to speak at churches, conferences, and universities.

More recently, there has been interest in my work from healthcare organizations, corporations and business management classes. From my cultural anthropologist perspective, the once-isolated Southeast is a major creative opportunity, similar to the Chicago area twenty-five years ago when I created the DuPage Interfaith Resource Network.

Trading notes with a fellow pioneer, I asked Terry for his perspective on creating understanding of religious diversity and the conversation got underway quickly.

(Terry) “I’m not entirely convinced that organizations should initiate training per se on religious diversity, or even if “training” is the right word for the need. The better approach, in my opinion, is to make it clear that religious diversity is a corporate reality and allow employees not to have to suppress their religious beliefs – or non-beliefs – since for many it’s a driver of engagement and motivation, especially during challenging economic times. Thus, skillfully facilitated dialogues where participants can share key aspects of their beliefs – and the impact of them on their productivity – safely ask tough questions, can work wonders in debunking myths and stereotypes, build trust and lessen the potential for conflicts based on religion. I’ve used this approach in the area of race over the years as well with the sessions we did, “When traditional religion meets sexual orientation.”

Second, I also think it more effective to tie such dialogues to corporate values and policies, and “couch” all this under talent acquisition and management, leadership and leadership development and innovation. That was the context against which we held a standing room-only session recently, “Lifting the Curtain…an exploration of religious diversity,” featuring a panel consisting of Muslim, Hindu, Christian and Jewish participants.”

I find that telling a quick story, a compelling story, can also be effective. For example, we once heavily recruited a talented design engineer from northern California who happened to be a Muslim woman, who was reluctant to come to Texas. During her interview trip, she walked past one of our “Serenity” rooms that’s used primarily by our Muslim employees for Friday prayer. She was shocked and mentioned that was key in her decision to join the company, where she soon became chair of our Muslim employees ERG.

(Deborah) I’m inspired by your story & approach and I’m trying to wrap my mind around the regional differences.  In the South, there are rarely, if ever, Serenity Rooms, or Muslim employee ERGs. This is why I start out with training, defining what is a religion and what is a liturgical calendar. I believe in this difficult arena, that control of the conversation is needed and beginners need to be directed to information that can be handled productively: calendars, food, views of life & death.

Defining religion would logically be a first step, but it turns out to be surprisingly controversial step. A fellow pioneer in the creation of interfaith councils quickly found himself confronted with the membership requests from pagan and spiritual groups that were anathema to the traditional religions. For those members, celebrating a pagan holiday in the name of engagement or innovation was unsupportable. As the facilitator, he engineered a requirement that members faiths had to be in existence for at least a century. Even though the range of diversity was thereby limited, the positive direction was achieved by the choice of religions to participate. Keep in mind that his specific arrangement was appropriate twenty-five years ago and may not be today.

I began my career with Jewish-Christian dialogue cells and then moved into a format with seventeen different faith traditions. Increasing the numbers participating dramatically changed the facilitation strategies. You also had a Jewish-Christian dialogue years ago, some of it focusing on the Holocaust, but now have four religions represented. It appears that you had some excellent facilitation in the mix. That facilitation expertise within the complex framework of religious diversity is not easily obtained in my experience. How do you decide what comprises facilitation expertise when dealing with religious diversity in the workplace?

(Terry) For me, it was a matter of first developing a relationship with them together, visiting each of their places of worship, laughing with and loving each of us then negotiating what the session would look like and how we would support each other if the going got rough which it didn’t. The audience was amazed by our transparency and figured out quickly that we’d spent lots of quality time with each other and as a group and deeply liked and respected each other. Thus facilitation was fairly easy. Our motto was that far too often the possible goes untried.

(Deborah) I totally agree that the best preparation for religious diversity is immersion and dialogue, as you so aptly describe your own journey. The commitment to develop a relationship with a positive, can-do attitude is key to creating leadership and facilitator skills in this arena.  That you took the time to visit each place of worship, seeing the physical heart of the religion, hearing the language, observing the prayer experience was central to the success of all of you.  Following up with dialogue, particularly with a goal of public program, planning for it and for anticipated challenges solidified the ability of you and the group to model a future framework to others in the workplace.

Your strategies are similar to the ones that I used to create the DuPage Interfaith Resource Network almost twenty-five years ago. I put it on a footing that allowed its work to continue without me, which was always in the back of my mind as a key goal. In recent years, I have contemplated my own role in the success of DIRN as well as the structure that empowered others.

Given my DIRN experience, here are my next questions for you:

  1. Would the panel have been a success without the time, effort and personal commitment made by you as the convening catalyst?
  2. What role will the panelists have in taking these efforts further in their own community?  In the workplace?
  3. What are you planning as follow-up, building on the work that you have already done?

(Terry) No, I really don’t think that the panel discussion and large turnout would have been successful without the time investment prior to the event. What also helped was that we had a similar session like this in 2008 and it too was well received. What also helped was our encouragement that our ERGs (we have 18) collaborate when possible on events and activities of common interest, e.g., Komen race for cure (breast cancer), Take our daughters and sons to work day, disaster relief fund raising, fund raising for diabetes research, etc. That way people connect around commonalities and not religion; thus, when we moved into religious discussion they pretty much know each other from other connections.

In general our panelists have encouraged their members to participate in such events and, as important, to share insights relative to their beliefs back on the job to their managers, peers, etc., how those beliefs impact the workplace. For example, our Muslim ERG has for years offering noon time “Come talk with us” sessions at different locations during which they debunk myths and stereotypes about their religion.

What next? We are planning to do another round of visits to local places of worship and expand it to encourage members to bring more people they work with who don’t share their religion. We intend to do another round of bringing in leaders of external religious institutions – Rabbi, pastor, etc. – for noon hour conversations (very positive reactions to the ones we’ve done thus far.)

(Deborah) Collaboration between religious groups and corporations may be the best option in these difficult times for building bridges across diverse faith traditions.  Interfaith dialogue puts a human face on cultural differences that seem insurmountable in the abstract.  Working together on community projects helps to solidify those relationships.  With an underlying philosophy of “Harmonize Not Homogenize”, these collaborations can result in a more productive workplace and better quality of community life, without diminishing the parties involved.


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