How can we support religion and belief at work?
By Jo Faragher on 6 February 2024
We now live in a truly multi-faith society. The 2021 census found that almost 300,000 households across England and Wales have people of different religions living alongside each other. But despite this, discrimination against religious employees is still common in many workplaces.
According to research from business consultancy Pearn Kandola, 47% of respondents do not feel comfortable discussing the celebration of religious festivals at work. Of more than 3,400 respondents who wore religious dress or symbols, 64% were not comfortable wearing them in the workplace with 38% saying their organisation could do more to be more inclusive of people of different faiths. A fifth said they had a request to take annual leave for a religious holiday or festival rejected. Commenting on the report, co-founder Professor Binna Kandola said it was “extremely disappointing” to see such negative experiences, adding that faith is often overlooked as a strand of organisations’ diversity and inclusion policies.
Listening to each other
Fiona Stewart-Darling set up a multi-faith chaplaincy in Canary Wharf, London, 20 years ago. It provides pastoral care to a diverse community that includes 150 corporations that employ 120,000 workers, 4,000 residents, 360 retail outlets, and a large contingent of construction workers. How organisations approach religion and belief has evolved during this time, she says: “In the early days it was about ticking boxes, for example having a prayer room. People made mistakes like assuming having Christmas trees would offend non-Christian faiths, when they’re not even a Christian symbol. Now there is far more working together, joint events, and learning from each other.”
More and more companies bring individual faith groups and networks together to find common ground, she adds. “With religion and belief approaches, it’s important to ensure you’re not just giving an advantage to people of faith over those with no faith. It’s not necessarily about the rituals of individual faiths, but how people’s faiths enable them to live their lives at work, how they contribute to what people do, what sort of manager they are.” When bringing different groups together, for example, listening is the most important element. “This might be how we disagree that still shows respect to someone, and what we can draw from our similarities and differences that helps us to support our business and our communities.”
One of the challenges in encouraging more open dialogue about religion and belief is a concern it might make people feel uncomfortable, says Paul Anderson-Walsh, CEO of The Centre for Inclusive Leadership. “The notion of talking about religion at work is still something of a taboo,” he argues. “When we’re looking for a sense of belonging, we effectively play a game to see if there are aspects of our identities that might put this at risk. So much around faith signals that it might not be a good idea to surface this aspect of your identity.” He adds that – other than in cases where people wear religious clothing or symbols – belief or faith can be an invisible aspect of our identities, so people sometimes choose to hide it. “If you feel like you have a stigmatised identity you might conceal it; it’s a bit like being in a neuro minority where you’re ‘masking’ or over-indexing on behaviours that are exhausting,” he says.
In companies where there is a true sense of inclusion, employees don’t feel they need to conceal their faith, advises Anderson-Walsh. “The organisation needs to consider where it is invested enough to be open to people’s prejudgements being changed and not calcified into discriminatory behaviour,” he adds. “If people feel they can’t have a view, that’s when we start to see culture wars and identity politics. A culture of inclusion will counter this.” By talking and being curious about the diversity of different faiths, people often realise they have more in common. “If we do it properly, it’s a dialogue, not a training programme,” he says.
One issue that further complicates the picture, however, is the ‘belief’ aspect of equality legislation. Employees have legal protections from discrimination based on protected beliefs, which also covers “genuinely held” beliefs around philosophical questions. So recent cases involving gender critical beliefs would come under this umbrella, as did a case in 2020 which found that ethical veganism was a belief protected by law.
Jonathan Maude, employment partner at law firm Vedder Price, says: “It’s really no surprise that employers struggle to comply with the law on religion and belief discrimination. Identifying what constitutes a “belief” and accommodating the observance of a religion or a belief by employees without causing disruption or negative feeling in the workforce, can be tricky things to achieve.” He adds that belief, rather than religion, can be “nebulous and very difficult to define”, citing one unusual case where a man claimed he had been denied work due to his support for Glasgow Rangers Football Club (his manager was a fan of rival team Celtic). Although the tribunal held that this was not a genuine philosophical belief, it’s a worthy demonstration of what can get to court.
Expression of belief
So how does this play out in the everyday workplace? “Case law has found that employees are generally entitled to promote their religious or political beliefs, provided they do so lawfully, and they do not intrude on the rights of others,” explains Kate Palmer, employment services director at Peninsula. “It will depend, therefore, upon how those beliefs are expressed and whether they could be considered offensive or inappropriate. We’ve seen this highlighted in several high-profile cases recently around gender-critical beliefs which have gone all the way to the Employment Appeal Tribunal.”
She points out that employees’ increasingly diverse faiths and viewpoints makes for a vibrant workplace, but not without challenges. “When people are brought together, connected only by the nature of their work, with different religious, ethical, moral, and political beliefs, it can sometimes be tricky for employers to navigate and balance everyone’s rights in the workplace,” she adds. “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and these are all protected under the UK Equality Act 2010. But difficulties can arise when outward demonstrations of religion or belief are perceived to impinge on the rights of others, which can cause offence.”
From a practical perspective, employers need to be mindful and ensure that they do not treat employees any less favourably due to any of the nine protected characteristics or make a decision which could indirectly discriminate against an employee,” Palmer advises. “Make sure that decisions are made for solid business reasons rather than any perceived bias – either conscious or unconscious – and consider what reasonable adjustments can be made to accommodate protected characteristics. For example, a blanket policy requiring employees to work on set days of the week could discriminate against some employees with differing religious beliefs. For example, the Muslim holy day is Friday, while for Judaism it is Saturday and Christians celebrate on Sundays.”
The legal intricacies aside, managers need to recognise that faith and belief is often an integral part of someone’s identity, and how they show up at work. Stewart-Darling adds: “Faith is part of our wellbeing. Faith influences what we do at work in just the same way as our upbringing, our ethnicity, or our gender.”
d&i Leaders is a global community of senior diversity, inclusion and HR focused professionals, looking to collaborate, network and accelerate their workplace inclusion strategy.