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Embracing religious and cultural diversity at work

6 tips for employers looking to foster religious and cultural inclusion

Published on

June 30, 2023


“If you’re striving to create a culture of belonging, the first thing that comes to mind is how important it is that everyone feels they can come to work as their authentic selves. Someone’s religious affiliations and cultural beliefs can be a significant part of their identity.”

That’s one of the key lessons Erin Campbell, our VP of People and Culture, shared in her presentation on Religion during our most recent webinar, DEI – An Introduction: Practical steps, key takeaways and lessons learned.

Each religion or cultural practice offers a variety of ceremonies, celebrations, and traditions that are woven into people’s day-to-day lives, including their time at work. And with work accounting for roughly 2000 hours of our time every year, it’s important that employers create a culture where people can bring their full selves—including their religious or cultural identities—to work.

Religions in Canada: A changing landscape

In Canada, our society and workplaces were built around one religion—Christianity, which took root with the arrival of European settlers in the 1600s. But if we look at the religious landscape in Canada today, we see the gradual decline of Christianity since 2001, along with the rise of those who identify as Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or who have no religious affiliation at all.

Between 2016 and 2021, Canada welcomed 1.3 million newcomers with their own unique cultural, spiritual, and religious backgrounds, making it more important than ever for employers to be mindful of varying customs and practices.

“Christianity has waned in part because of immigration but also because Canadians are shifting their beliefs, particularly younger Canadians who don’t identify with any religion,” Erin explained.

Six actionable tips to integrate religion into your DEI strategy

As you start to consider ways you can foster religious and cultural inclusion in your workplace, Erin’s number one piece of advice is to connect with your team directly. She suggests that you be curious, avoid making assumptions and ask team members what support they require. With their input, you’ll be able to action the tips below in a way that supports the unique needs of your workforce.

1.  Build awareness and education for yourself and your team

“Developing cultural competencies will help you understand people’s different backgrounds and have more empathy and respect for their experience,” Erin says.

  • Take the time to learn about religious holidays, ceremonial days, customs, and traditions. As you build your knowledge, you’ll start to gain valuable insights into how you can best support your team.
  • Use a multi-faith calendar to identify major religious and cultural holidays that you can add to your own company calendar.

As you learn more about what each religious observance entails, you can consider how to support observing team members. For instance, when Ramadan begins, connect with those who may be fasting and offer increased flexibility, such as adjusted hours, reduced screen time, or optional meeting attendance.

2. Offer paid time off for religious celebrations or ceremonial days

Statutory holidays in Canada are typically based on Christian beliefs and traditions (e.g., Easter, Good Friday, and Christmas). One simple step that can help foster inclusion in your workplace is offering additional paid time off for significant days tied to an individual’s beliefs.

  • At Altis Recruitment, our paid leave package includes an additional day for team members to use for a religious celebration, ceremonial day or cultural observance.

“Typically, those who celebrate holidays not covered by a stat end up using a vacation day so that they can participate. By giving them this additional time, they can save their vacation days for exactly that,” Erin said.

If you’re not able to offer paid time off, consider offering lieu time, allowing team members to work on holidays they don’t identify with and book the time off when it’s more relevant for them. For example, an Indigenous team member may want to work on Canada Day and use the time they banked for a ceremonial celebration instead.

3. Accommodate religious practices

When you’re planning meetings and company events or considering how your physical workspace can be more accommodating, check in privately with your team members to determine their needs. “You don’t want to make assumptions about what someone needs based on their religion,” Erin says.

Examples of accommodations include:

  • Offering a specific break time for prayer.
  • Scheduling no meetings on Friday afternoon so team members can head to their place of worship at the end of the day.
  • Introducing a multifaith room for a team member who would like the option to pray at work. We recently introduced this at our Ottawa office after receiving feedback from a team member.
  • Offering a flexible dress code that honours religious requirements for attire (e.g., head coverings, religious garments or modest dress). By providing clarity about what team members can wear, they can feel comfortable adhering to their beliefs while still remaining professional.

4. Celebrate with your team

Help your team celebrate! With your company calendar updated with religious festivals and observances, you’ll be prepared to plan small celebrations to acknowledge your team’s beliefs.

One thing we’ve learned, small gestures can go a long way. We’ve sent gifts that commemorate certain holidays to our individual team members. For example, to honour the Lunar New Year, we sent our celebrating team members a gift card to purchase a celebratory meal. If you’re working with a small budget, consider offering the option to log off early so they have extra time to spend with their family.

Tip: Be mindful of celebratory dates like Diwali, Eid or Rosh Hashana (amongst many others) when planning meetings or events, so those who may be observing are still able to attend.

5. Familiarize yourself with dietary restrictions

When planning events, catered meetings or team lunches, consider how religious or cultural practices can influence diet.

Some team members may only eat Halal, others may eat Kosher, and some may be vegetarian for religious reasons.

Send out a survey in advance of the event to ensure that everyone will have a food option available to them. When planning your menus, be mindful of alcohol as well. Some individuals may abstain for religious reasons, so add a few non-alcoholic options to the beverage list.

Tip: Offer a takeout container to team members who are fasting and may want to take food home to enjoy later.

6. Avoid making blanket statements about a specific religion or set of beliefs

Many of us make assumptions about religions we don’t understand, which can show up as microaggressions that can offend our colleagues and clients. While microaggressions can be different things to each person, Erin suggests avoiding statements that sound like judgments or that diminish the importance of what the person believes. “We could end up perpetuating a false stereotype, even if there isn’t any ill intention behind the comment,” she said.

If you find yourself making a comment unintentionally, take a moment to pause, genuinely apologize and then move forward with a commitment to do better next time.

We’re all on this learning journey and we will all make mistakes along the way. What matters is we’re committed to learning and growing together!

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