Best of HR Roundtable: The Challenges Handling Religion In The Workplace

Editor’s Note: TLNT has been publishing Steve Browne’s recaps of the HR Roundtable in Cincinnati for more than five years. For two weeks, we’re bringing back some you might have missed.

The February HR Roundtable in Cincinnati met under a “cloud” because January’s Roundtable was canceled due to the serious winter weather – not because the topic of “Religion in the Workplace.” (or so Steve hoped !)

This topic could become very divisive and heated, but Steve encouraged the attendees to look at this from some different angles.

Here are the three questions the small groups took on:

  1. What misconceptions do people have about religion in the workplace?
  2. What’s the difference between tolerance and being knowledgeable?
  3. How can this be an integrated cultural facet of a company?

The groups were really eager to jump in and discuss this topic. The conversations were so in-depth that it was hard to break them back out to have them share to the larger group. In the end, they did and this is what they had to say …

What misconceptions do people have about religion in the workplace?

  • It’s a big problem — It doesn’t mean that this issue may not be a challenge for the workplace. But, it was felt that it wasn’t a GIANT issue that had to be corporately addressed. The sense was that religion was discussed more individually or in a small group setting. It wasn’t a rampant evangelical movement.
  • If I listen to your views, I agree with them — It’s intriguing that this would be seen as a factor of religion being discussed. You could argue that this position is what people hope for regardless of the topic. People are looking for affirmation of their beliefs on a myriad of subjects. It could be more heightened when religion is the subject, but it doesn’t have to be.
  • We overreact if it’s brought up during an interview — This could be more true than a misconception actually. Since people don’t generally have a deep knowledge of various religions and belief systems, they could overreact during an interview because they don’t have context when a candidate shares about their faith. The misconception is that people are going to be “hard line” about their beliefs, when they could just be sharing a part of who they are all the time anyway.
  • Everything has to be accommodated — This speaks more to HR not understanding how accommodation requests work. One of the criticisms that is sent HR’s way is that we don’t know our field well enough to be accurate in our communication on compliance. When the “A” word (Atheism) comes out, people scramble. HR could better itself by understanding its culture and its obligations to use accommodation correctly and consistently.
  • We don’t consider Atheism as a “faith” — When people look at religion, they focus on Christianity, Judaism, Islam and possibly Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. There are folks who identify themselves as agnostics and atheists in the workplace as well. It’s interesting that we are more impassioned about the more visible faiths versus those that we aren’t as familiar with. Beliefs are beliefs. There are many that exist and could be something that employees bring with them to work as their belief system.
  • Conversation vs. Conversion — One of the most emotionally driven misconceptions is that if employees talk about religion in the workplace, they are doing so to convert others to their faith. It is true that this occurs, but it is addressed in what is/isn’t appropriate. You can’t stop people from talking about their faith. If someone crosses over to the conversion side of the equation, you need to be graceful and confront it. Don’t assume it’s just going to “happen” and then write some inane policy to yet again address an exception in the workplace !!

What’s the difference between “tolerance” and “being knowledgeable?”

  • Where’s the line of disruption? This was an interesting answer that was given. Is there a way to feel, or measure, when talking about religion becomes disruptive? There probably is. The key is that it needs to be viewed on a case-by-case basis. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to suppress everything because people will do more to make something come into the light the more it is covered !!
  • Tolerance doesn’t mean agreeing with — Similar to the point above. If a person is looking for agreement and acceptance with their belief system vs. other’s beliefs, you’ll run into problems and confrontation. Forcing anyone to take a side in the name of tolerance isn’t being tolerant by nature of this action.
  • Knowledge is key — The reality of religion being a diversity opportunity is overlooked by HR. There is more around avoiding conversations when you could take a more proactive position of making people aware of what belief systems are out there. This isn’t asking for acceptance or conversion. The reality is that many disagreements and arguments over diversity issues are grounded in ignorance. Take the time to train and educate employees. Doing this demystifies misconceptions about others.
  • Respect is essential — A facet that HR can build in the culture is respect. This isn’t a program or a policy, it’s an action. It truly is an opportunity for HR to model the education and understanding of employees for who they are.

How can this be an integrated facet of a company?

  • Remember that employees are people — We often overlook the fact that people bring ALL that they are to work. Their heritage, culture, experiences, values and faith. You can’t wish that out of someone. HR needs to change and return to a human focus on people instead of an “asset” or “human capital” perspective. Value people for who they are. It’s the basis for diversity because people naturally bring this to work anyway !!
  • When there are differences, address them — Religion is no different from any employee relations topic really. If you treat it differently, then it will be approached differently and people will be sensitive to it. Treating religion as “normal” will set an entirely different set of expectations about what is safe to talk about in the workplace. It can be done in a very respectful and open way. It just takes some focus and effort to make it consistent.
  • Use resources around you to gain knowledge — Contact the institutions in your community !! Let them come to work and educate people on what they believe and practice. It doesn’t have to be comparative. It can be knowledge based to open people’s eyes to what others believe.
  • Truly have an “Open Door” — This is directed solely at HR. The openness around this issue has to start with you. Don’t expect others to “get it” through osmosis. If you are open to learning about others who are different from you, then you can show others how to effectively do this as well.
  • Stop practicing HR collectivism — HR that follows the one size fits all mantra is awful. It’s also shallow and discriminatory in the end. HR practiced individually is more difficult, but in the end, the entire workforce is better served. When HR makes sweeping policy moves, it misses the diversity right in front of you. Break the mold on this and meet people where they are instead of thinking everyone has to look, think and act the same.

It was fascinating to openly talk about religion in the workplace without one person being called to take sides, or join one belief system and not another. If this can be done in one hour during an HR Roundtable, it can be done in the workplace !!

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Steve Browne

Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP, is the Executive Director of Human Resources for LaRosa's, Inc., a regional pizzeria restaurant chain in the Greater Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio area with 16 locations and over 1,200 team members. Steve has been an HR professional for more than 30 years in the manufacturing, consumer products, and professional services industries. He facilitates a monthly HR Roundtable in Cincinnati and runs an Internet message board for HR pros that reaches 7,800 plus people weekly. Steve joined the SHRM Board of Directors in January 2016. You can contact him at sbrowne@larosas.com, or on Twitter (@sbrownehr). You can also read more on his personal blog, Everyday People.