· Comment

Why corporates need to go further with understanding the faith agenda

A plurality of thought is one of the many wonderful benefits of the UK’s democratic system, but in recent times, a feeling that goes beyond plurality has emerged: it is a feeling of division, on a political, economic and, most worryingly, social level.

How we counter the growing divisions within society isn’t black and white, and requires comprehensive efforts from government, grassroots civil society organisations and also the private sector.

Tackling division does start from a simple place however – understanding ‘the other’ – that is, those who are different to us. Given we spent more time with our colleagues than anyone else, where better to build our understanding than at our places of work?

Further reading

EHRC publishes guidance on employees' religion and belief rights in the workplace

Legal lowdown: Religious employers and employees' private lives

Addressing issues around faith groups and faith integration is particularly pertinent – especially given the social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The complex anxieties around the pandemic are generating opportunities for division, and employees from the faith groups are particularly vulnerable.

In recent years, the equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) agenda has become de rigueur in our workplaces; gender and sex, race, disability and age seem to have found their place in the work environment (albeit after a rocky ride). For people of faith and religion, however, we still have a long way to go.

Like all forms of EDI, just knowing a bit about religion isn’t the answer, it is too complex. Knowing a bit about Islam for example, that Muslims fast at Ramadan, is a start but barely scratches the surface of how employees might be feeling, physically, spiritually or emotionally for a full month of the year.

Employees from faith communities may have needs surrounding diverse issues such as; time off for speedy burials, aversion to foods from unknown sources, immodest office dress codes, complex family responsibilities, and finding time to pray.

There is a feeling that often government, organisations and other British structures avoid dealing with the faith groups for fear of being considered prejudiced. If religion is to truly feature in the EDI agenda with all the benefits that brings, we need to do more. Firstly, better religious ‘literacy’, then a willingness to support and encourage integration within company structures and thirdly, provision for people of faith to feel truly valued when at work.

Which leads me to action, internal and external. Within company structures, faith networks, celebration of festivals, opportunities for people to talk about their faith traditions and cultures and participation in interfaith initiatives will all lead to that illusive and essential sense of belonging.

Prayer spaces, dress codes which specifically endorse religious garments, access to non-meat kitchens, and flexible working around faith timetables are all obvious ways to not only accommodate people of faith but to signal that they are included.

Integration can be an oversimplified concept; forward looking companies have programmes for minority groups or for women aimed at ensuring that they feel connected and valued, but this may not be enough. A new report by the Woolf Institute suggests that the key may be in friendships built through people working together on a shared agenda and really getting to know the ‘other’.

This approach was previously labelled a 'Side by side' approach by former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks. “Side by side,” he said, “can sometimes reach deeper than face to face. Through simple acts of helping one another, former enemies can become friends.”

Externally too, it is time for companies to play their part in supporting the integration agenda specifically relating to faith groups – by offering support, including financial support, to the myriad of small, hard pressed organisations and charities in the space.

With government funding already minimal and pressure on it likely to grow exponentially, the opportunity – maybe even the responsibility – exists for business to take a leading role.

Supporting the faith communities will, surely, pay off; with better understood, better integrated and valued staff whose faith identity can be brought openly and proudly into the office (virtual or otherwise); only serving to better our society as a whole.

Laura Marks OBE is an interfaith government advisor and founder of Common Good