Campus & Community

Diversity in religion

3 min read

Particularly at the holidays, managers need to be sensitive and aware, speaker says

December is a challenging time when it comes to acknowledging and celebrating religious and nonreligious observances. So many are jammed into this month that people don’t always know what to say to each other: Merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, happy Kwanzaa, or something else?

Lots of managers issue the universally accepted “happy holiday” and hold generic holiday parties, said Mark E. Fowler of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. Yet the party often happens in a room with the “big old Christmas tree” in the corner. Fowler said hosts should be cautious about symbols that may be associated with a specific religion, and added that it’s fine to say “Merry Christmas” or Happy Hanukkah” if you know the person celebrates the holiday. If you don’t know, he said, it’s OK to ask.

Fowler shared his views at “Religious Diversity in the Workplace: Fostering Inclusivity and Engagement,” the second of three Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) diversity dialogues for this academic year. The goal was to promote respect, bridge religious differences, combat prejudice, and respectfully address religion when issues come up.

As the country diversifies, the way religion shows up in the workplace will diversify, Fowler pointed out. For example, in 2011, he said, there were 41,000 Christian offshoots. “It would be a fool’s errand to try to figure them all out,” he said, so it’s important to look at religion holistically rather than narrowly.

Religion can become most salient just when a manager may not expect it, Fowler said, such as when an employee asks to take time off for a religious observance. A manager cannot say “I don’t know that tradition,” or “Someone else of the same faith has not asked for time off,” but must take all requests seriously and provide reasonable accommodation for the employee, Fowler said.

How can managers be more sensitive and respectful of different religions in the workplace? Fowler said to apply the “platinum rule”: Treat others as they would like to be treated. “Avoid assumptions, be curious, and ask questions respectfully, identify and debunk stereotypes, and acknowledge and apologize for mistakes,” he said.

Fowler also suggested that managers engage in respectful communication, and “consider your own ‘lens’ toward religious diversity, and acknowledge the diversity among and within traditions.” In addition, he said to be sure to schedule events, meetings, and other activities sensitively. “Use the Outlook interfaith calendar, ask about colleagues’ conflicts, provide innovative solutions, and, if all else fails, provide ‘catch-up’ materials.”

Finally, he added, be sensitive to dietary issues, and always ask colleagues about any restrictions. For a vegetarian, “it is depressing to go to a workplace function and be offered a tossed salad as the only vegetarian option.” Dietary accommodation is “low-hanging fruit,” an easy problem to solve, he said.

Fowler said the University should survey managers annually to find out how many accommodations have been granted and how many have been denied, aggregate the data, and use it to make decisions in the future.

“I was struck by the gap between how we perceive our own treatment of religious differences and how we feel treated by others in the workplace,” said Russ Porter, FAS administrative dean of science, one of about 100 people in a packed Thompson Room in the Barker Center. “This gap points out how essential it is to look for opportunities to engage in meaningful one-on-one conversations to ask ‘What is comfortable for you?’ instead of making assumptions.”

The FAS Dean’s Office, FAS Human Resources, and the FAS Office of Diversity Relations and Communications are partners in the Diversity Dialogues.