What to Do about Faith Bias in the Workplace

Topics: Client Relations, Corporate Culture, Diversity, Gender Equity, Perseverance, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts


More than one-third of American workers identified that they had witnessed or experienced religious bias in the workplace, according to Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, an organization which combats religious bias in the workplace, healthcare, education and conflict zones. Recently, we sat down with members from the organization including the Deputy CEO Rev. Mark E. Fowler to discuss Tanenbaum’s work with corporate America.

Tanenbaum works with multinational organizations to address the business case for making religion a recognized area of corporate diversity and inclusion (D&I) and then once approved, helps them create a strategy for how to do so. “What it comes down to is about respect in the workplace,” Fowler says, adding that companies come to Tanenbaum several ways, including:

●  Through employee resource groups (ERGs) because the corporation has been engaging in various aspects of identity such as race, gender, military status or sexual orientation. “Now, it makes sense for them to address the dimension of religion because it’s the one that they haven’t done anything about yet,” Fowler explains. “They recognize that there are desires of workers based on a variety of religious beliefs and practices and future needs of a changing workforce.”

●  When something goes wrong, such as an employee sharing something on the company’s intranet that was either challenging at the very least or derogatory at the worst around someone’s religious beliefs or their own belief.

●  Purely out of curiosity; for example, if the organization sees changes that it needs to address, is getting requests for a place to pray, or has challenges around scheduling meetings with a cross-regional workforce across multiple time zones.

To help support corporations, Tanenbaum developed the Corporate Religious Diversity Assessment in conjunction with the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, to provide companies with an internal assessment that allows them to see where they are currently in their journey of addressing religious diversity in the workplace. It also provides forums for learning among its corporate members and clients.

Discussing Religion

One of the common challenges that companies face in formalizing religion as a recognized area of their D&I program is the social taboos around discussing religion or politics in the workplace. To combat this challenge, Tanenbaum leverages data to make the business case for it, arguing that if a company is not addressing religion as a formal area of D&I, they really need to do so now.

Most recently, corporate members have asked for support in how they can address recent events involving hate crimes against houses of worship. In response, Tanenbaum has created communication templates and speaking points for its corporate members to share with their workforces internally and to use externally through social media channels. For example, when a gunman massacred worshipers at the Tree of Life temple in Pittsburgh, Tanenbaum crafted its own response and forwarded it to its members for them to use. A senior leader from one of its corporate members shared the statements on LinkedIn.

Examples of the Positive Impact on Companies

Through Tanenbaum’s Corporate Membership Program, it has seen many instances of the positive impact of investing in religion as an area of D&I, including:

● Earning millions in new sales — One of Tanenbaum’s corporate members in the pharmaceutical industry used its internal faith-based ERG to adjust their medicines to make at least one of them both halal and kosher. As a result, the company increased sales by millions of dollars.

● Enhancing the employee experience — At last year’s Religious Diversity Leadership Summit, the chief diversity officer of Target Stores shared that she saw the benefits of addressing religion to be inclusive of the next generation of workers. Additionally, she shared a video of a female Muslim woman intern’s experience at Target and how she was supported by her supervisors and colleagues during Ramadan and as a valued team member.

● Advancing Inclusion — According to Tananbaum’s Survey of American Workers and Religion, employees indicated that they were two times as likely to say they were happy working for companies that had a high employee awareness of accessible company policies. Conversely, employees who did not know what the policies were or did not know how to find them, were four times as likely to say they were looking for another job.

The Activities of Faith-based ERGs

The goals and initiatives of a faith-based ERG differ across companies and industries. Tanenbaum described some of the common activities it sees, including:

● Recruiting — Some companies leverage their faith-based ERGs to collaborate with human resources around recruiting and involve its members to demonstrate representation of religious diversity as a way to attract new employees to the company.

● Understanding Different Customer Markets — Others use their ERGs as internal focus groups. For example, ERGs at retail banks connected to Tanenbaum have provided feedback and information on appropriate retail products, such as respectful imagery on holiday gift cards.

● A Place to Grieve — Most recently, the faith-based ERG at a global semiconductor design and manufacturing company was a quiet, welcoming space for colleagues to grieve together during recent terrorist attacks at the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand and synagogues in Pittsburgh and San Diego.

Tanenbaum sees its work only increasing in the corporate space. “The question no longer is if a company should be addressing religion in the workplace,” Fowler says. “The question is how is it addressing religion and creating workplaces that are inclusive of people of all religious beliefs and none.”