Originally published in Women's Agenda
In 2019, Australia is an incredibly religiously diverse nation. Across our multicultural country, we practice many different faiths, with the 2016 Census revealing that 61% of the Australian population (14 million people) are affiliated with a religion or spiritual belief. At the same time, we have more people of no-faith than ever.
During a recent conversation for DCA’s podcast, Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow said that, in context of the above, Australia does religious freedom very well given the broad and open nature of our society.
That’s a great thing.
But in addition, it’s also important to see religious inclusion being done just as well, especially in workplaces.
What I mean by religious inclusion is moving beyond just complying with the law to actively accommodating people of different beliefs – and yes, elevating the quality of conversation we’ve been having about religion and work in the past few months.
At DCA, our updated multi-faith guidelines do exactly this. These guidelines are a resource that set out a framework for situations where staff may have particular religious needs, or where someone’s religious beliefs challenge another person’s belief or identity.
It is challenging terrain but necessary – a business imperative. There is no shortage of evidence that supports the notion that inclusion leads to more engaged, creative and productive workplaces. Increasingly, Australian companies are developing markets and establishing trading relationships in new communities and regions of the world, often places where business practices may be influenced in part by religious tenets. Organisations that are not responsive, respectful or inclusive of these differences risk failure to fully capitalise on business opportunities.
At home, employees too are expecting faith sensitivity and responsiveness. They are less and less willing to disconnect their work and personal identities and organisations that enable employee authenticity are more likely to reap the connected business benefits . This can include employees seeking to express their religious and spiritual identity in the workplace or at the very least, not being able to operate in an environment of respect. Organisations who take a proactive approach to multi-faith inclusion are open to a number of benefits.
And while there are no shortcuts or straightforward answers to meeting these needs or gaining these benefits, there are a few key principles which, if kept in mind, can make Australian workplaces truly inclusive of faith and religion, while also protecting wider human rights:
Start with mutual respect
A good point to start from is by ensuring that all employees – of faith or no faith – are treated with basic respect. In most cases, starting with respect means there can be a sensible compromise if and when a difference of beliefs arises. Respectful behaviour should also extend to interactions between people of faith and other diverse identities.
Avoid stereotyping and bias.
Faith-based stereotyping is extremely common and in the workplace can lead to inaccurate ideas that people from particular faiths are not capable of taking on certain roles. When DCA conducted research for Cracking the Glass Cultural Ceiling, for example, our participants told us that they experienced the stereotype that Muslim women are submissive and therefore not capable of taking on leadership roles. This kind of stereotyping negatively impacts an employee’s time at work and their career opportunities, and can cause offense with customers and clients.
Mind the language
While it can be challenging to confront non-inclusive language, especially when it’s coming from powerful or influential people, faith inclusive language matters and is important to instil. It is a powerful tool for building inclusion (or exclusion) at work. The way we speak creates a culture where everyone – people of all faiths and people with no religious affiliation – can feel valued, respected and one of the team, rather than under-valued, disrespected, and out of place.
Balance belief and identity
It’s important to consider where someone’s religious beliefs may challenge another person’s belief or identity, especially if this has an impact on the needs of the business. Inclusive workplaces welcome and encourage religious beliefs and expression, but they aren’t places for proselytizing or actively pushing religious or faith beliefs onto others.
So yes, while navigating faith and religion at work is complex, the basic starting point can be as simple as asking: is the workplace respectful and inclusive? In 2019, every Australian business should be able to answer yes. Their very success depends on it.