Creating Space for Religious Diversity at Work

 


We tend to think of business as a secular activity, and workplaces as inappropriate settings for conversations about religious faith or observance. However, given the growing popularity of bringing one’s whole self to work, the trend towards practices such as yoga and mindfulness, and the fact that more than 80% of the world claims some sort of religious affiliation, leaders are increasingly concerned about how best to handle expressions of faith by their employees.

For many religious people, their faith is associated with deeply held values that inform their actions and behaviors at work as well as in their personal lives. In workplaces where employees feel comfortable talking about their religious beliefs, everyone can gain a richer understanding of their colleagues’ personal motivations and of the varied values at play in their organizations.

However, there are complications that come with this openness. Once the range of beliefs of a diverse workforce becomes more public, employees may disagree with each other about them. Expressions of belief may also conflict with the requirements of the business, forcing employers to walk a fine line between non-discrimination on religious grounds, service to the customer, and fair treatment of all employees.

These concerns are compounded in organizations that are explicitly religious (such as the Salvation Army) and in others whose founders’ religious principles inform the company’s values and practices (such as Chick-fil-A). While some employees share the beliefs at the heart of these organizations, those that do not can feel excluded or discriminated against.

At either type of organization, certain religious beliefs may dictate that employees dress a certain way or avoid eating certain foods, working on holy days, or serving certain types of customers. Pitting these tenets against the demands of business creates tension in the organization, often with negative ramifications. Conflicts over religious dress have resulted in lawsuits, causing people to leave or be fired, damaging the organization’s reputation, and making it more difficult to attract or retain staff and customers. At a personal level, people can break under the strain of the conflict: delivering products or engaging in practices they don’t believe in makes them lose confidence in the organization and can become demotivated or quit altogether.

But we believe that actively accommodating highly diverse beliefs and practices within an organization are possible. Specifically, we have seen that a business’s values, customers’ values, and employees’ religious values can coexist even when on the surface they may seem pitted against each other. To explore what this might look like, we conducted a 24-month ethnographic study of the opening of KT Bank, the first Islamic bank in Germany.

The incompatibility of Islamic teaching with much of conventional Western banking practice makes the potential conflicts in this case particularly intense. Islamic banking explicitly bans the payment of interest and also prohibits the kind of speculation and risk trading that is found in conventional derivatives. The bank’s leaders, however — comprising Muslims, members of other faiths, and people without strong religious convictions — adopted a deliberately vague and flexible approach that allows them to accommodate divergent beliefs while maintaining unity.

We found that two deliberate practices involving both leaders and employees can help create what we call an elastic hybrid: an organization that can embrace different and potentially even opposing views, allowing all stakeholders to navigate competing commitments in line with their own convictions and helping the organization to find unity in diversity.

Cultivate Ambiguity

We’re used to hearing calls for ever more clarity from our leaders: precision about their message and the ability to align people behind a single, powerful vision or purpose. But to create an elastic hybrid organization, leaders must instead cultivate vagueness around how the organization’s purpose relates to religious practice.

At KT Bank, leaders deliberately obscured the way that the bank balanced its religious and commercial ambitions. The imagery on calendars or products used subtle religious symbols. People versed in Islam would recognize their religious connotation, but others could enjoy them as artistic or cultural artifacts. The most visible instance of this interpretive flexibility was KT Bank’s logo. It shows a yellow date tree on a green background. For those unfamiliar with the Islamic faith, this may evoke a sense of environmental or economic sustainability. Muslims, by contrast, would likely recognize green as the color of Islam and associate the date with divine nourishment. Campaign slogans played on double meanings that signaled religious commitments not to speculate or trade-in improper goods, but could also simply be construed as a distinctive market position. For example: “Now there is a bank that does not speculate, but invests sensibly.”

The bank’s leadership was not aiming to hide anything with this vagueness, but rather to be open to being multiple things to multiple people at the same time. 

Create Space — Literally

Moving between different physical places allows employees to separate their professional work from their religious observance. Giving them the time to do so also helps alleviate this tension.

At KT Bank, we observed how 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.

This flexible approach, which recognizes and includes diverse beliefs, allows individual staff to choose their own level of religious intensity and balance it with the demands of the organization in a dynamic way. For example, at times they may choose to subordinate their religious concerns and prioritize what the company needs them to do. At other times it may be appropriate to question company practices when they seem incompatible with their personal values. A company that is open to the latter may benefit from employees’ increased willingness to do the former. And as it develops through the interplay between the leaders’ making space and the employees’ taking space, the organization is able to bend, but not to break.

This is a new area of research and more work is needed to understand successful ways that organizations have handled different kinds of conflicts between value systems and religious practice. But from what we’ve seen, in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, and paradox, it may be advantageous for an organization to mirror the characteristics demonstrated by KT Bank. A perfectly aligned organization with clarity and focus at every level may not be as adaptable as organizations that make room for, and even celebrate, ambiguity.

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