Creating an Inclusive Environment for All Religions

By Sam Ali

Is your company able to deal with religious bias, such as the current anti-Muslim rhetoric? Progressive companies with clearly stated values that hold people accountable for their actions offer valuable lessons. Get advice from companies such as IBM and American Express about how they handle these situations, and how employee-resource groups in particular can help them create inclusive workplaces.

Companies such as IBM Corp., No. 7 in The 2011 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity®, and American Express, No. 13, say that sensitivity, training and flexibility can go a long way in creating a culture of inclusion and religious accommodation. In an article on, Kerrie Peraino, senior vice president, international human resources and global employee relations at American Express, discussed the importance of aligning employee-resource groups with corporate values.

“Before you plant any seed, you need a culture where people are encouraged to work together and respect one another,” Peraino said. “There must be an environment where personal accountability and integrity permeate through every action and transaction. When you start with a work culture that is inquisitive and [has] values alignment, there’s more room for various beliefs to be expressed and constructively contribute to employee and business success.”

So how do you ensure your workplace is inclusive for everyone, including those of minority religious faiths? What steps should employers take to steer their organizations toward a healthier, more diverse workplace?

  • Deep-rooted organizational values that respect customers, communities and employees are essential to an inclusive culture and a successful diversity initiative.

The companies that demonstrate long-term diversity success, such as IBM, for example, have intrinsic, strong moral codes that are at the backbone of every business decision they make.

“If you think about IBM’s values, at the end, it comes down to a single word in my mind, and that’s ‘relationships,'” says Ron Glover, vice president, diversity and workforce programs, human resources. “We do things that really bring value to and enable people and communities around the world to be successful and to take on the toughest problems they have. Then we look at trust and personal responsibility. All of those come down to a notion of enabling us to build relationships. That work formed a basis in our work in diversity as a way to bring different voices to the table and to build an environment within our company first and then across the organizations around the world.”

  • Companies that value diversity and inclusion often have strong employee-resource groups that are encouraged to cross-collaborate and to focus on education, awareness and inclusion.

American Express has a total of 14 ERGs, including three faith-based networks: SALT, the Christian network; CHAI, the Jewish network; and PEACE, the Muslim network. The groups are open to everyone and have senior-level sponsors.

“Although religious networks may seem complicated, at American Express, they’ve provided a very productive outlet for employees to fully engage at work, to learn more about themselves and each other and to build bridges to understanding,” Peraino said.

Twenty-eight percent of The 2011 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity report having faith-based ERGs, up from 10 percent in 2006.

A number of DiversityInc Top 50 companies have also started Middle East/North African ERGs, including Booz Allen Hamilton, No. 32; Cummins, No. 18; Eli Lilly, No. 39; Ford Motor Co., No. 47; General Mills, No. 27;Johnson & Johnson, No. 6; and Wells Fargo, No. 40.

  • Strong mentoring programs should have a cross-cultural component.

Almost all DiversityInc Top 50 companies encourage participants to findmentors who are both from their group (whether that’s defined by race, ethnicity, religion, age, orientation or ability) and not from their group. Employee-resource groups are often used to give employees access to mentors within their own groups and across groups. These mentoring programs must have structure, formal follow-up and measurable results.

  • Don’t just deliver the employee handbook and walk away. Continuously communicate. Make sure everyone is clear on your HR policies, and encourage discussion.

“Religious policies should also be backed up with training,” said Dr. Georgette F. Bennett, president of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, in an article for DiversityInc. “An organization cannot assume that its policies and rationales are understood the same way by every employee, so an orientation of clear do’s and don’ts with periodic follow-up training ensures all employees are on the same page. This way, if an employee violates company policy, managers have clear guidelines upon which to fall back. When this happens, it also gives the employer an opportunity to see whether its policies or training protocol were unclear, while further teaching the employee about the organization’s expectations.”

Other steps organizations can take to create an inclusive workplace culture:

  • Schedule sensitively.

Keep a calendar of religious holidays handy, and be sure it’s available to managers and supervisors, Bennett said. When scheduling important meetings or celebrations, make sure they’re during a time when everyone necessary can attend.

  • Handle the holidays.

Official holidays in the United States are predominantly Christian, often forcing employees of other faiths to use vacation days to observe their holy days, she said. Implement flexible holiday policies such as holiday-swapping or floating personal days to give all employees an equal opportunity to observe.