Reflections on Religious Diversity in the Workplace

By Christina Folz posted 12-18-2013 10:22


In reflecting on Dori Meinert’s excellent article about religious accommodation in the workplace, I was reminded of an experience I had in one of my first managerial gigs, about 10 years ago. I had never supervised a team before, and I was eager to get to know my employees—a small group of three—and support them as best I could. However, at that point, my enthusiasm far surpassed my ability as a manager—and I quickly began making all kinds of mistakes. In one case, I had become so buddy-buddy with an employee that I felt unable to provide her with the constructive criticism she needed from a boss. In another, I made a promise to an employee that I later realized I could not keep.

Feeling dispirited, I attempted to boost the team’s morale by bringing cupcakes to a meeting in celebration of a team member’s birthday. To my surprise, one of the members of the group abruptly got up and left the room. I later found out that, as a Jehovah’s Witness, he did not celebrate birthdays as part of his religion.

At the time, I was tempted to succumb to both eye-rolling and self-pity. Must everything be an issue for someone? And why wasn’t anyone acknowledging how hard I was trying to be a good boss?

Over time, I came to understand that, yes, everything is an issue for someone in the workplace—but that is a good thing. I believe that the myriad perspectives and talent that come from having a diverse workforce far outweigh the inconvenience that any one of us experiences in striving to accommodate all.

Even more than that, the workplace offers us a unique opportunity to expand our understanding of our fellow human beings. How many of us, in our personal lives, are truly exposed to people of varying beliefs, sexual orientations, races or ethnicities? While many of us pride ourselves on being tolerant, the reality is that, like birds of a feather, we tend to flock together within our families and communities. Not so in many workplaces, where the only common denominator is the fact that all workers are employed by the same organization.

And so, after initially viewing the incident with my colleague as an annoyance (because it was inconvenient to me!), I came to see it as a learning opportunity. I did some online research about Jehovah’s Witnesses and talked with the individual about his faith. I learned that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate birthdays and certain holidays because they believe that doing so would distract them from worshipping their God.

I have since met people of many different faiths at work. One December, a Jewish coworker confided in me that she had been wished a “Merry Christmas” at least three times on that particular day, and she had come to feel increasingly marginalized and misunderstood during the holidays. The encounter forced me to consider how I might feel, as a Christian, if I had been wished a “Happy Hanukkah” that frequently.

I also learned the hard way (on deadline) that I would not be receiving the feedback I had requested from a colleague in China on an article I had sent him right around Chinese New Year. It was another experience that led me to educate myself. While not an official Buddhist holiday, Chinese New Year is a time that has deep religious and cultural meaning for many Chinese.

As the workforce becomes increasingly global and diverse, it will become more and more important for professionals to learn about other faiths, cultures and traditions. Indeed, a recent SHRM news article underscores the importance of being mindful of all the holidays celebrated by our colleagues around the world.

As the 2013 Tanenbaum survey cited in Dori’s article points out, we have our work cut out for us. More than one-third of workers recently reported having observed or being subjected to religious discrimination in the office. But HR professionals are in the fortunate position of being able to lead change, by adopting many of the suggestions included in Dori’s article.

In this season of celebrations, I would like to wish one and all health, happiness and peace, including believers of all faiths, non-believers, and everyone in between. It is my sincere hope that we can all come to view our encounters with colleagues of different faiths for what they are: gifts.  

Perhaps we can begin by helping to educate one another. These are some of my stories—what are yours? Please write them here or in the Discussion section of Dori’s article.