Schedule a Call

Religion in the Workplace: How to Achieve Inclusive Observance

Jan 05, 2023



In today’s work environment, you will find individuals who subscribe to a variety of faiths as well as individuals who consider themselves atheists.

In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, nonreligious people, or “religious nones,” now represent one of the fasted-growing segments of the population. About a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) now say they think of themselves as spiritual but not religious, up 8 percentage points in five years.

The challenge most leaders face is how to accommodate their employees’ diverse religious needs while being respectful of those who subscribe to atheism.

It is worth pointing out that, despite the documented growth of those who consider themselves religiously unaffiliated, Christianity is still the “norm” in this country.

The following are just a few examples of Christian hegemony in our society:

  • school and workplace holidays are keyed to the Christian calendar (particularly Christmas and Easter),
  • politicians make frequent references to the Christian bible, and
  • the weekend supports Christian worship.

According to a survey about what American workers think about religion, results showed many leaders are hesitant to tackle the issue of religion for fear it is too sensitive an issue to address.

Tempting as this may be, tap-dancing around religious observances is no longer a viable solution because, for many employees, religion represents a significant part of their identity. 

Because of that, there has been an increase in the number of companies that have started the process of crafting policies around religious accommodations.

Accommodating employees’ religious needs makes business sense as it can lead to increased retention as well as increased job satisfaction. Some of the strategies companies have successfully put in place include:

  • Providing prospective employees with the company’s religious discrimination policies.
  • Offering flexible hours to allow workers to take time off to observe religious holidays.
  • Creating “quiet rooms” which are open to all employees not only to pray but also to take a quick break.
  • Including major religious and cultural holidays on its calendar to increase awareness and help set work schedules.
  • Developing “tip sheets” that outline dietary restrictions. This not only helps accommodate employees’ religious beliefs but also ensures that work-related functions meet their dietary needs.
  • Creating religious resource groups where individuals from all religions as well as those who are religiously unaffiliated are encouraged to join. The goal is for members to learn from each other and partake in the celebration of different holidays and beliefs.
  • Being proactive in assessing their employee’s religious beliefs. This would prevent companies from, for example, scheduling a business lunch during Ramadan or an important meeting during Yom Kippur.

Luke Visconti, founder and CEO of DiversityInc and a nationally recognized leader in diversity management, argues that companies have two choices to help employees celebrate the holidays within the company: “respectful nonobservance”, or “inclusive observance.”

Respectful Nonobservance

This means you forego all religious celebrations but close your doors for critical holidays that reflect your employee population. Given that 63 percent of the U.S. population consider themselves Christians, it would make sense for companies to close during Christmas.

Closing their doors for every major holiday presents a challenge for employers. Because of that, leaders should be aware of all other major religions represented within the company and be ready to accommodate an employee’s request for time off.

This is the type of culturally competent practice that shows respect for an employee’s faith which, in turn, could improve engagement, boost productivity, and reduce loss of talent.

Companies run into trouble when they solely emphasize one religion to the exclusion of all others (especially when it benefits the majority).

Also particularly troublesome is the practice of celebrating the holidays in a “sanitized” fashion, which often leads to no one being happy.

A Better Alternative: Inclusive Observance

 Companies attempting inclusive observance should celebrate different holidays with equal emphasis.

This is particularly important for companies with a global reach and a highly diverse workforce. This practice could be a fun way for all employees to celebrate and expand their worldviews.

In the spirit of inclusive observance, organizations should also recognize the needs of the religiously unaffiliated but still feel the need to connect with their deep sense of spiritual peace. Could this be another use for the prayer room?

Many organizations are still navigating through the challenging process of creating an inclusive religious environment while still recognizing the needs of the “religious nones.”

There is no question that we are currently living through highly polarized times. Despite all our differences, let’s find some common ground and be kind to one another.

So, if someone wishes you a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Season’s Greetings, Happy Holidays, Peace, or any other greeting associated with their culture, religion, or belief, assume good intent on the part of the well-wisher and, regardless of your religious or non-religious background, simply reply: Thank you! You too! *

 * Adapted from Dave Liebermans’ holiday greetings flowchart.



Subscribe to The DEI Minute!

Sign up to get weekly tips and strategies about diversity, equity, and inclusion to help you increase your DEI IQ. Emails are guaranteed short and to the point, hence the DEI Minute!