Supporting religious observance in the workplace

28th October 2020

I’ve always seen November as a quiet month, with not much going on, but it turns out that November is in fact a busy time for many religions. It sees the start of some major religious festivals for Buddhists, Christians, Rastafarians, Hindus and Sikhs.

I don’t observe any particular religion or belief but am interested in and see the appeal of various thoughts and teachings. Gandhi once said, “The need of the moment is not one religion, but mutual respect and tolerance of the devotees of the different religions.” I think we can learn a lot by widening our knowledge of religions.

I feel my past workplaces have been less than diverse in terms of religion for years. Not intentionally so, but from the office Christmas Tree to the compulsory December team turkey dinner, it’s mostly Christian values and traditions that are the norm in Welsh workplaces.

So is religion a consideration in the workplace? Should it be? Many would say it’s a personal lifestyle choice that it doesn’t impact on work, but I would argue that work is very much part of our lives and a good work-life balance is high on the agenda for most of us. Religious observance and work life need to work in harmony.I first became aware of how religion entwines with the workplace in 2013 when Nadia Eweida, a Christian British Airways employee, took a discrimination-at-work case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights and won. The Court ruled she was unfairly discriminated against when asked, as part of a uniform policy, to stop wearing a cross visibly. She successfully argued that the cross was a symbol of her faith.

The law protects from discrimination on the grounds of religion, religious belief and of having no belief, and of course religion can also be intrinsically linked to race. The Equality Act 2010 protects us all based on these characteristics and outlaws discrimination, whether direct or indirect. But what can we do to be more inclusive?

Give consideration to:
  • Uniform rules – can women cover up or wear traditional coverings? Can people wear jewellery?
  • Dietary requirements – what do caterers provide at your events?
  • What work events are arranged? Do they always involve establishments that serve alcohol? Do you always meet at the same time, when others may be at worship?
  • Job duties – do they include, for example, the handling of meat or alcohol?

There are plenty of rules, processes and activities in work that can indirectly discriminate against employees of various faiths. Such processes can create barriers to access work for many religious groups, often further linked to race.

These women face the usual gendered barriers to the workplace, such as access to childcare, but further racial inequalities and biases make it additionally challenging for them. They argue that their difficulties are not due to a lack of job opportunities, but the discrimination experienced by individuals from ethnic minority groups.

What can we do in the workplace?
  • Know the workforce – carry out equal opportunities monitoring and act on the data collated
  • Set up a multi-faith calendar of religious events to encourage inclusion
  • Be considerate – be aware of fasting times and prayer requirements; use flexible job design to accommodate these
  • Raise awareness of bias – train all employees on unconscious bias, equality, diversity and inclusion
  • Introduce agile working – give employees various flexible ways of working to facilitate attendance at religious events or time for prayer
  • Write an Equality and Diversity strategy – aim to improve inclusion in the business and to diversify the workforce
  • Have inclusive recruitment processes – anonymous applications; representative recruitment panels; include equality, diversity and inclusion commitments

There are so many positive actions we can take that will have an impact on women in Wales; diversifying the workplace, nurturing religious tolerance and inclusion and contributing to gender-balanced Welsh workplaces.

Join us at our next webinar, where we will be talking about this in more detail with our panel of experts.

This article was produced by:
Caroline Mathias
Employer Partner for Chwarae Teg’s Agile Nation 2 Business Programme