Religious diversity in the workplace

In the 21st century workplace, religion is
a very important influence in the lives of
many workers. One study showed that about 20 percent of the respondents had
either been victims of religious discrimination or knew someone who had been discriminated against due to his or her religious beliefs. Only about 15 percent of
employers provide space or time for religious observance, study or discussion, and
only 13 percent accommodate the needs of
different religions in the workplace.

“In a country such as the United States,
which is founded on religious freedom, this
is not acceptable to most people,” says Dr.
Bahaudin G. Mujtaba, associate professor
of management for Nova Southeastern
University at the School of Business and
Entrepreneurship. “Religious discrimination may send a message to others of religious freedom being a privilege to some
elite group but not everyone.”

Smart Business asked Mujtaba how
employers can make sure a workplace is a
comfortable place for workers from all
walks of life.

What is an example of religious diversity in
the workplace?

The simple example might be a situation
where an employer hosts an employee
recognition lunch on a Friday afternoon.
The menu consists of ham, roast beef or
salami and cheese sandwiches, julienne
meat salads, some champagne to start the
celebration with a prayer, and soda. This
may sound like a wonderful meal for some.
It may also be thought by the employer to
be a wonderful way of showing appreciation. What is wrong with this picture? The
employer is trying to say thank you to all
employees? They have clearly purchased
all the food. The employees should be
appreciative and thankful for this, right?
Wrong! The problem with this particular
situation is that the Christian employees
cannot participate because the event is
held during Lent, and they cannot eat meat.
The Hindu employees cannot eat meat at
all and will not enjoy the meal as much.

The Jewish employees cannot participate
because meat and cheese eaten together
are not kosher. And the Muslims are not
even present due to the event being held
during a prayer time on a Friday afternoon.
Also, the Muslim employees would not be
able drink the champagne since it has alcohol or to eat ham, salami or julienne meat
salads. The luncheon sounded like a good
idea. The best of intentions are now an
arena of exclusion. Furthermore, the
employer is now perplexed and cannot figure out what the problem is or why morale
and performance will decline. This is a simple example of how an employer can have
a good intention and manage to unintentionally discriminate against and offend a
number of his or her diverse employees.

Initially, employers must understand that
there are millions of Muslims, Buddhists,
Jews, Hindus and other non-Judeo/
Christians in the U.S. work force. Furthermore, billions of dollars have been spent in
the United States since the 1960s to correct
racial, ethnic and sexual discrimination in
the work force. However, many employers
remain extremely reluctant to address or
discuss religious issues. Discrimination
issues do not go away by ignoring them or through ignorance; in fact, they often grow
very big, very fast, and can cause low
morale and lawsuits.

What should employers do to ensure they
manage religious diversity within the work-place?

If a religious discrimination complaint is
made, employers must show that they have
complied with three requirements. They
must be able to prove they have educated
themselves, been reasonable by not relying
on stereotypes and have considered all
alternatives for accommodation.

Additionally, they should enforce intolerance to all forms of bias and prejudice as
well as maintain a proactive stance toward
hearing and addressing the concerns of all
workers. But above all, employers should
listen to the concerns of their employees
and seek their suggestions.

More specifically, experts suggest that
employers need to create a mechanism
that allows them to step outside of their
established comfort zone and discuss religious issues. Most persons are willing to
discuss their religious practices.
Employers should also create a safe space
where everyone can effectively deal with
religious problems. And, the employer
should also focus on the small things, since
that is where most issues begin.

American employers should stop running
from diversity and embrace the various
theories, with hope for a more healthy,
happy and productive tomorrow.
Employers should strive to create an environment where both the employer and
employee can be satisfied and proud of
everyone’s accomplishments and where all
employees can work in an environment
free of discriminatory practices.

DR. BAHAUDIN G. MUJTABA, is associate professor of management for Nova Southeastern University at the School of
Business and Entrepreneurship. He is a certified diversity trainer
and educator. He is the author of the recently published book
titled “Workforce Diversity Management: Challenges,
Competencies and Strategies” published by Llumina Press, 2007.
Reach him at (954) 262-5045 or [email protected].

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