(RNS) — For decades, there has been an unspoken ban on religious discussion in the workplace. And no wonder: Deeply held beliefs, not to mention religious dress or practices, can become a powder keg in corporate lunchrooms no less than at family gatherings.
But thanks to the nation’s expanding religious diversity and the recent surge in workplace diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, the business world’s unofficial taboo on religion might be waning. A growing contingent of businesses have begun talking about religion as an asset, rather than a divider.
Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core, said that in the last three years he’s seen an exponential increase in the number of companies coming to IFYC to consult on religious diversity. Since 2019, “one phone call a year became 12, 15, 20 requests a year,” said Patel. “Walmart, AllianceBernstein, Edelman, Starbucks … A whole set of places, from banks to PR firms to retail, reached out to us and asked us to engage on religious diversity questions.”
Brian Grim, president of the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, told Religion News Service that “every week” he hears from a new Fortune 100 company asking how to approach religious diversity in the workplace. “There’s been a massive change in the past three to five years in some of the world’s biggest and best companies towards embracing religion as part of their overall diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives,” said Grim.
Some recognition of religious diversity is as simple as serving kosher or halal food in the company cafeteria or offering floating holidays, so days off don’t revolve exclusively around the Christian liturgical calendar. For years, companies have offered faith-based employee resource groups, or ERGs, that allow workers to organize around their religious identities.
But some companies are going further, sponsoring religious literacy trainings and hiring interfaith chaplains for in-office counseling or spiritual support.
The companies’ motivations aren’t solely benevolent: There’s a business case for religious diversity that’s connected to overall diversity efforts and to what employees want out of their workplaces.
“Markets and market potentials are driven not only by what marketers try to get people to buy, but by these cultural and religious factors and values,” Grim said. “So businesses realize that to work in tomorrow’s marketplace, understanding religion is really important.”
Paying attention to employees’ religious practices can allow them to feel more valued, develop better working relationships and ultimately to be more productive, Grim added. This can be an edge in a globalizing workforce: While institutional religion is declining in the U.S., a 2015 study from Pew Research Center projected that globally, the world’s religious populations are on the rise.
Younger American generations continue to become more religiously diverse; they’ll expect employers to accommodate religious differences. According to a 2020 study from the Public Religion Research Institute, the median ages of white Protestants, white Catholics and Black Protestants in the U.S. are all in the 50s. In contrast, the median ages of unaffiliated people, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims are in the 30s.