Should Companies Address Religious Diversity as Part of Their D&I Agenda in Asia?
Considerable attention is being given to many aspects of the diversity and inclusion agenda, including gender, generations, disability and even sexual orientation and gender identity. However, few companies to date have broached the evidently ‘taboo’ subject of religion. Yet religion is such a central part of identity, particularly in markets in Asia, most notably India and Singapore, that it could be argued that any discussion regarding diversity and inclusion in the workplace that does not reference religion, is incomplete.
Organisations may understandably be nervous when openly tackling the sensitive issues that are often associated with this topic. However, not talking about them does not mean they do not exist, nor that their impact is insignificant. Given the strong affiliations that religious identity can create, few can deny that bias and discrimination on the grounds of religion exists in organisations, often negatively impacting organisational productivity, team cohesiveness and even individual employee wellbeing.
Religious Bias in the Workplace
One of the only organisations globally that works with the corporate sector on religious diversity in the workplace is the leading not-for profit, secular and non-sectarian organisation, Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. As part of its wealth of training and resources, it identifies 10 Bias Danger Signs for companies to look out for, describing these as “obvious and subtle ways in which religion often arises in workplaces across all faith traditions, for both employees and customers”. From attitudes to religious attire, prayer and devotion to diet, holidays and scheduling, these bias danger signs are very much apparent in many workplaces in Asia, with the needs of employees from minority religions often overlooked, undermined, or even blatantly violated. Indeed, according to our own research in India, nearly half (46%) of respondents to an online employee survey indicated they felt they had been excluded, or treated differently in the workplace, on the grounds of their religious affiliation.
But beyond the risk of religious bias, there is a positive opportunity here too. In proactively acknowledging and embracing the diversity of religious identities in the workplace, companies can help to facilitate dialogue, challenge the stereotypes, overcome the sensitivities and even powerfully combat some of the often divisive narratives highlighted in the media and politics. In so doing they can open the way for deeper, more trusting employee relationships, which in turn yield higher levels of productivity and performance. And in allowing employees to bring all aspects of their human identity to the workplace, including their religious affiliation, companies have an opportunity to bring a much broader range of worldviews to the table in the pursuit of corporate excellence.
Ready or Not
Regardless of how ready or willing companies in Asia feel to address religious diversity in their workplaces, they may find the need to do so foisted upon them by events globally. The Black Lives Matter movement has precipitated the call for companies to have more open discourse on sources of systemic racism and inequality and this impact is being felt by companies with operations in Asia too. As one D&I professional who contributed to our research shared:
“There is a little ray of hope. With all that happened with George Floyd, there has been a zero tolerance policy from our company. We have a Working Committee looking at this and our CEO has signed a 10-point action item to address systemic racism and inequality. Even though it is very US specific, it is trickling down to other countries. From an India perspective, I don’t know exactly what that is going to look like, but that gives me hope that people are talking about sources of inequality, and there is no way we can continue to tiptoe around these issues of religion.”
The Call for Bold and Inclusive Conversations
As we encourage companies to address the subject of religious diversity and inclusion in the workplace, we recognise that not all organisations, leaders and managers may feel comfortable or equipped to do so. We also acknowledge that opening the door to focus on this topic may promote the airing of ideological differences, and even a polarisation of views, that may pose a threat to a cohesive culture. It calls, therefore, for the ability to facilitate bold and inclusive conversations in the workplace, a competency and skill that needs to be developed and enhanced over time. According to Dr Mary-Frances Winters, author of We Can’t Talk About That at Work!, this requires companies to create an environment where people can acknowledge differences, safely confront biases and stereotypes and identify common ground, so that ultimately they can create stronger, more inclusive organisations.
For Community Business, as champions of diversity and inclusion, the arguments in favour of opening the door to this conversation far outweigh the option to continue to shy away. Religion is a key part of human identity and as such, should naturally be integrated into a company’s wider diversity and inclusion strategy. We invite companies to take the lead in opening up conversation, listening to the experiences of employees, examining any religious bias that might exist in their organisations and taking proactive steps to redress. For ultimately, if we are to create a culture of true inclusion, where all employees are empowered to contribute to business success, we cannot choose to address some aspects of diversity and ignore others.
For more on the business case and how to address religious diversity in the workplace, please see Community Business’ research: Fostering Religious Diversity & Inclusion in the Workplace in India.
About the Author:
Written by Kate Vernon, Executive Director, Community Business
Read by Sandhya Manoj, Country Head, India, Community Business