The push from Quebec’s new Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government to ban religious symbols from being worn by public sector workers in positions of authority has placed the issue of religion at work firmly in the spotlight.
Eighty per cent of Canadians participate in some form of religious practice, according to a 2017 Angus Reid poll of 2,006 adults.
As such, employers can and should do a better job of welcoming people of faith, according to Ray Pennings, executive vice-president of Cardus, a faith-based think tank with offices in Ottawa and Hamilton, Ont.
“We need to be more attentive to matters of faith, especially in our workplaces and other public spaces. Having a diverse workplace is good for business, and religion is part of that,” he said. “If you’re told that part of you, you have to leave at home and is not welcome in the workplace… that has cultural implications in terms of creativity and passion.”
The workplace should not be a “religion-free zone,” said Brian Kreissl, a human resources product development manager at Thomson Reuters in Toronto (publisher of Canadian HR Reporter).
“People should be free to practise their religion. They should be free to discuss their religious practices,” he said. “If it’s a major part of someone’s identity, they shouldn’t be forced to kind of keep that under wraps and hide that when they come to work.”
Fostering religious diversity at work presents many benefits, said Kreissl, including a widened talent pool, improved engagement and productivity as employees bring their authentic selves to work, less groupthink decision-making, and legal compliance with human rights law by ensuring staff are not discriminated against based on protected grounds.
“There are quite a lot of actual business advantages to having a diverse workforce,” he said. “Religion is just one aspect of diversity, but it is an important part of it.”
Most large employers have a clear policy in place in terms of religious accommodation, while small business owners do their best to make requests work, said Pennings.
“Simply accommodating people in terms of religious holidays or religious dress… is one thing,” he said. “But if we really believe in the philosophy that we want to bring the whole person to work and that when we have their whole being, we’re able to get the best of them in the workforce, we need to understand that religious identity is every bit a part of a person’s identity as sexual diversity, ethnic diversity.”
Alongside accommodation, employers should look to adopt proactive measures including awareness, affirmation and engagement, according to Navigating Religious Diversity in the Workplace — a guide recently published by Cardus.
Awareness includes building religious literacy within an organization by learning about various traditions and holy books, said Pennings.
Affirmation would see an institution recognize the importance of religious diversity alongside individual identities, while engagement could include training sessions or collaboration with religious communities, he said.
“Workplaces have a lot to gain when they invite employees to come in and look at problems with their various perspectives,” said Pennings.
“We live in a multicultural society and understanding how people think and how people understand the world is only going to make for a better workplace.”
With the festive season upon us, employers need to remain mindful that workers celebrate a variety of occasions and holidays, said Kreissl.
“Some people kind of roll their eyes or get annoyed when people start saying things like ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas,’ but I do think it is important to recognize that not everyone celebrates Christmas,” he said.
“A large percentage of the population does celebrate Christmas and does celebrate the holidays and we shouldn’t try to kind of hide that fact. But, at the same time, I think we should try to be as inclusive as possible and try to ensure that people feel free to participate, even if it isn’t their religion.”
While wishing colleagues religious greetings is not offensive — “You’re just wishing someone all the best and a joyous time” — employers should attempt to make year-end parties as secular and inclusive as possible to ensure most staff are comfortable in participating, said Kreissl.
Employers should also be aware of competing rights within human rights legislation, and that freedom of religion does not trump freedom from discrimination, he said.
“There’s definitely a fine line between being able to talk about your religion and preaching or proselytizing to other people.”
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