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Losing (and gaining) religion in the UK – adapting to changing needs

Religion can be an overlooked part of the inclusion equation

As the number of people of differing faiths, and no faith, co-existing in the workplace rises, DAN CAVE reports on how employers are updating their policies to be more inclusive.

With the UK population becoming increasingly irreligious – 2021 Census data shows that the number of people self-describing as having no religion has jumped by 8 million since 2011 – the religious aspect of D&I could easily be put on the back burner.

Indeed, many already think employers aren’t proactive in this area, with a 2017 ComRes report finding that only a quarter of workers think that religious inclusivity is on the business agenda.

Read more: Rangers fan who claimed football as important as religion loses tribunal

However, a more recent study, the 2023 DIAL Global Diversity Review, found that for over £50 million-turnover businesses, religion was considered the second-most important facet of D&I practice.

And while it is undeniable that irreligiosity is on the rise, 2021 census data also shows that there are still over 27 million people in the UK who identify as Christian, the most populous domestic religion, and growing numbers of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists, as well as those in lesser-known religions such as Shamanism.

Coupled with figures from the Woolf Institute, a charity that promotes inter-faith understanding, which found that three quarters of religious people say they work alongside other faiths at work, it puts pressure on HR to create a multi-faith inclusivity plan.

Yet, despite many workforces with multiple faiths, Idris Arshad, HR business partner at St Christopher’s Hospice, explains that many employers don’t focus on religion enough.

He says: “The religion aspect isn’t talked enough about in diversity but it’s one part of the whole of everybody’s identity if they have a faith or not.”

Therefore, to get started in this area, Nadia Nagamootoo, founder at Avenir Consulting Services, explains that data collection should precede practical intervention but leaders need to explain why it’s happening.

She says: “Senior leaders need to be saying ‘We need your help in order to be more inclusive and that data we collect will be kept confidential’ so people don’t think it will be used against them.”

Andrew Stephenson, chief people officer at Equiniti, agrees that building such trust is crucial in obtaining improved, granular data on workforce religious beliefs as this underpins practical next steps such as checking HR processes for unconscious bias against specific religions.

Indeed, a focus on employee listening, employee-sourcing company values and celebration of diversity on company comms channels have allowed the global financial services firm to get huge amounts of trusted data on its workforce.

D&I Clinic: Ask all the right questions

Equiniti is currently enjoying a circa-90% disclosure rate on its monthly D&I surveys. Stephenson adds: “This employee sharing of data is the biggest thing that allows us to make progress.”

Once the data has been collected, then companies must take action, he emphasises. At Equiniti, this means giving this data to managers so they can be effectively informed and use it to balance individual religious needs with business goals.

Stephenson points out that while Equiniti has generous holiday allowance, enabling managers to give employees days off to suit religious festival needs, something DIAL found 94% of employers do, the London-headquartered firm doesn’t allow choice over bank holidays as it doesn’t work for their business. Instead, data has allowed Equiniti to tailor its inclusivity adaptations.

For example, at the financial services firm’s Birmingham office, to benefit the large Muslim population working here, Equiniti has installed Wudu washing facilities. Stephenson explains: “We monitor the mix of religions in the same way we do different genders, etc, as we believe talent is universally spread.

“And we might make changes based on the specific office as we’re not just doing this to tick boxes, we’re not just creating a room that becomes a storage cupboard with a fancy name.”

With Equiniti also celebrating religious holidays for many faiths within its offices, which employees of all faiths or no faith are invited to, it has aligned with the circa nine in 10 firms that DIAL Global found allow free celebration and discussion of religion at work.

Indeed, it is keeping the conversations around religion celebratory and positive – because of arguments that might arise should one employee feel another faith is getting preferential treatment – that Arshad believes is crucial to promoting multi-faith inclusivity.

He says: “Multi-faith inclusion can be a difficult narrative to manage and you have to focus on the positives and the things that bring all religions together, rather than separating them.”

To create practical interventions that are positive, Arshad adds that HR should speak to employees from specific faiths to help build out a strategy and try and be inclusive in all company gatherings, such as giving non-alcoholic options at celebrations – something that benefits those who don’t drink for religious and non-religious reasons.

Read more: Should HRDs call time on workplace booze culture?

Joana Filipe, head of people and culture at internet service provider Vorboss, explains that successful multi-faith inclusion also likely requires financial outlay, outside-the-box thinking and workforce education.

However, as Filipe sees it, even small changes can benefit both people and productivity, noting that when Vorboss changed business hours for Ramadan the rate of work rocketed.

At Vorboss, these changes have included designing uniforms to fit with religious garb, ensuring workplace food is suitable for all religions, enabling private space in offices for prayer, allowing people to go out and pray, or even visiting engineers as they work to offer prayer mats.

She adds: “On day one, every employee is given mandatory training and has to pass a diversity and inclusion assessment and we also have specific training for managers.

“[These schemes] cost money, but you see the benefits from a numbers perspective in productivity and having a satisfied workforce is invaluable.”

Like Filipe, Ann Allcock, head of diversity at Ciphr, believes that for proper multi-faith inclusion, education has to be centre-stage because being exposed to different religions without understanding can breed resentment.

She adds: “Employers should create a ‘learning culture’ where staff from different religions are invited to share information about important events and practices and they also provide wider societal context for faith-based discrimination and hate crime [among other things].”

It’s these kinds of changes – supporting managers to lead religious inclusion and holding difficult conversations – that Nagamootoo explains will enable companies to move past simply taking a tick-box approach to true religious inclusion with necessary practical changes.

She adds: “These conversations can be uncomfortable so managers need training in how to create safe spaces and then the organisation can evolve to a better place over time.”

This will help attract talent regardless of faith, and there is less risk of discrimination, explains Chris Garner, managing director at Avensure.

He says: “Aside from the fact that religion is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act it is simply better for business to be as inclusive as possible in an increasingly competitive labour market.”

And, adds Julian Hargreaves, director of research at the Woolf Institute, multi-faith inclusivity can result in businesses having a positive impact outside the workplace, too.

He says: “With so much at stake in terms of wider cohesion, workplaces are crucial settings for our understanding of diversity and our attempts as a society to improve relations between faith communities.”

It is commonly held that employee resource groups (ERGs) boost the visibility of underrepresented parts of the workforce and foster understanding between groups. At Equinti, which employs people from a number of different religions, there are ERGs for the LGBT+ community, employees interested in wellbeing and one for multiculturalism and religious inclusivity.

This group is specifically set up to celebrate and explain the differences between separate cultures and religions.

To ensure these groups have a voice and the business can take action against any issues, democratically elected voices work at turning group suggestions into policy, values and strategy. “It’s a key part of what we do,” concludes Stephenson.

Creating multi-faith ERGs

According to the CIPD, a successful ERG is one that:

● Aligns with the L&D strategy

● Has executive sponsorship

● Allows ERG leaders to take company time for group activities

● Recognises subgroups within it

● Promotes psychological safety

Read more on ERGs: How can you ensure resource groups drive inclusion?


This article first appeared in the September/October 2023 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.