Creating Space for Religious Diversity at Work

 Creating Space for Religious Diversity at Work

Ali Aslan Gümüsay, Michael Smets, and Tim Morris

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 become 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 customer. 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 is 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.”

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Originally posted on Harvard Business Review

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