AltoPartners Guide to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Religion in the workplace: making the festive season – and the year – comfortable for all

December 15, 2022 Share this article:

Religious Diversity

Religion in the workplace comes into sharp focus in December when a number of days have special significance. From the Buddhist Bodhi Day on December 8 to Kwanzaa, the weeklong secular holiday honouring African-American heritage which ends on January 1, and from the Christian festival of Christmas on December 25 to Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights, there are a number of reasons for celebration and reflection.

The question of how to honour the religious holidays of different faiths in an inclusive way at work is important – religion is an integral part of many people’s lives and the wider world, so to be religiously-tone deaf is a strategic liability. And religion, if not sensitively handled, can be divisive. Getting it right has benefits, says the World Economic Forum: “faith-friendly corporations are more appealing from a recruitment and retention standpoint. They increase morale, reduce religious bias, and foster greater collaboration, creativity, productivity, commitment and innovation.”

For Corinne Klajda, CEO of Accord Group Polska / AltoPartners Poland, the starting point is generosity of spirit. “In our office, we enjoy celebrations… it means more sweets and cakes all year round. I am from Mauritius, and celebrating every religious celebration is in my DNA. We celebrate Chinese New Year, Diwali, Christmas, Eid, as long as there are those cakes and sweets!”

Sonal Agrawal, global AltoPartners Chair and Accord India managing partner, approaches the season in a similar way: “We celebrate all the major festivals in office – Diwali, Eid, Christmas – and then some! The Hindu faith has a pantheon of gods, and each major deity has their own set of festivals, and we find any excuse we can to feast.”

Honouring religious diversity is not just for December

How a workplace promotes inclusivity by celebrating various religious festivals during December is the starting point for a year-round approach to faith. And how religion is handled will often be determined by wider social and legal patterns.

Christian Andrews, Financial Controller at Equation Partners / AltoPartners Chile, says that Chile is a predominantly Christian country, both Catholic and Protestant, with various denominations, although other faiths are present. But, he says, there is no religious discrimination. “It is not raised as an issue when hiring personnel, nor is a particular creed invoked as a requirement when determining the search profile of a candidate.”

In France, it is legally forbidden to ask about religion, says Jean-Philippe Saint-Geours, Partner Leaders Trust International / AltoPartners France. “So we do not know and do not want to know anything about faith.”

To talk about religion in the workplace – or not?

For teams in the AltoPartners partnership, religion in the workplace is approached in the same way as political beliefs and affiliations – with deep respect for individual positions.

Paolo Damia, Managing Partner at TreviSearch / AltoPartners Italy, says “we respect all the different religions. In our company, we don’t know the faiths of our team members because we never ask questions about it. We simply ask them to work as we work, not affecting professional activity with religions/faiths or rituals or beliefs.”

For Klajda in Poland, discussions about values and spiritual perspectives are part and parcel of working life. In Agrawal’s workplace, there are Hindus, Christians, Muslims, as well as a Zoroastrian. “You can’t get away from religion in India. It’s very much a part of life and the organisation.”

Sorin Popa, Managing Partner at the Accord Group in Bucharest / AltoPartners Romania, says that while religion is not much discussed, they adopt a laissez-faire attitude, which respects personal beliefs as it prevents clashes in the workplace.

And sometimes religion is just not discussed at all, say Fredrik Hillelson (Group CEO, Partner and Board member, Novare Group / AltoPartners Sweden), Susanne Frey (Partner, Jack Russell Consulting GmbH / AltoPartners Munich) and Awni Nemer (CEO, McArthur Murray / AltoPartners Dubai).

Observing religious holidays

Most AltoPartners members observe the national holidays which apply in their countries and find ways to allow people of different faiths to honour their own traditions.

Damia says: “We only recognise national holidays (like Christmas and Easter) when our offices are closed. Our team members can ask for paid holidays at individual level, which coincide with their religion’s holidays, and we will grant those when needed.” Frey says things are similar in Munich. “We are tolerant, bound to the German Christian holidays but you can always take leave, for example, to observe a Muslim holiday.”

And religion in executive search?

Religion does not often come up in executive search negotiations, say Hillelson, Frey and Damia (as in many countries, it is forbidden in the USA and Italy to talk about religion, politics, race or sexual orientation and gender during job interviews). In India, Accord India emphasises in every engagement letter that they do not discriminate on the basis of gender, ethnicity and religion.

Klajda says that their clients generally believe that everyone has a right to their own beliefs – as long as they do not interfere with their ability to do the job. “But it is our job to ensure cultural fit. If our clients have open-minded and inclusive cultures, we will not present closed or narrow-minded people even if they are excellent at what they do as it wouldn’t work team-wise. Regardless of beliefs, values have to be aligned.”

Tips for fostering religious diversity in the workplace

Generosity, respect for regional norms and individual beliefs, flexibility, open discussions and clear diversity, equity and inclusion policies – these are the key lessons from AltoPartners thought leaders. Here are some ways in which those values can be practised by business leaders:

Create physical space: A 24-month ethnographic study of the opening of KT Bank, the first Islamic bank in Germany, observed that the bank’s leaders (comprising Muslims, members of other faiths, and people without strong religious convictions) allowed employees to separate their professional work from their religious observance. “Staff found ways to maintain their personal balance between market and religion by the use of a prayer room. There, people could temporarily retreat from work and decompress from faith/work conflicts and anxieties in whatever way they saw fit; there were no restrictions on how the room could be used or by whom, or for which faith. Flexible work times allowed people to accommodate religious practices within the working day. Several members of staff told us that it was the first time they had a designated space for prayer at work and reported feeling ‘deeply content’ and ‘grateful’ for the fact that KT Bank had made space for their religious practice.” In workplaces with a wide range of faiths, a prayer room can be called a silent room.

Mindful communications: Don’t wish people “Happy Christmas” in a company-wide email unless you are sure that every single staff member celebrates that occasion. Instead, wish people a happy festive season. (Equally, festive decorations need not be overtly religious.)

Not all workers wear only suits and skirts: If you have a dress code at work, religious wear needs to be accommodated.

Offer training to all employees: Religion is a hot-button issue; when two religions collide, the results can be devastating. Training can help employees to understand what is acceptable and not in terms of discussing faith in the workplace. Part of this can include looking at the issue of unconscious bias, as it is possible employees may try to impose their belief systems on others without realising it.

Make time for planning: Involve people with varying beliefs when preparing for a company event. Be scrupulous about asking people what their wishes and concerns are. And it’s not good to plan the event for a religious day of observance. Use an interfaith calendar.

Provide food options: For a company event, ask about people’s dietary preferences. If there’s a wide variety of dietary needs, ask staff members if they can suggest suitable caterers, who can for instance provide kosher, halaal, vegetarian or vegan options. More generally, consider various dietary requirements across the workplace – for instance in the kind of food provided in a staff canteen.