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Making the Case for Religious Literacy

As we consider our IDEA goals for the coming year, I’d urge you to consider religious literacy as a key component of your IDEA initiatives.

In the IDEA realm, religious identity is perhaps one of the least talked about identities.

A study by the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation found that only 43% of Fortune 500 DEI pages even mention religion in their descriptions, which is much lower than for race (95%), women/gender (87%), sexual orientation (76%), or disability (69%). And yet religion can impact so many facets of our organizational culture - everything from how we recognize holidays to our dress code, to foods at the company picnic or office potluck. As IDEA initiatives mature and we have more nuanced conversations about intersectionality, we can no longer ignore the importance of religious inclusion in the workplace.

Why we don’t talk about religions and why that matters

Historically, our Western society teaches us that religion is private and discourages us from talking openly about religion and spirituality. And despite Canada being one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world, as a society we are woefully uninformed about the basics of the world’s religions. This makes it a challenge to gracefully navigate religious inclusion in the workplace. More importantly, our reluctance to engage on this topic can send the unintentional message to colleagues that something central to their identity is both unmentionable and unwelcomed.

What the research shows

We know that creating a welcoming organizational culture is crucial to a business’ success. Google’s well cited multiyear study on team effectiveness showed that psychological safety – the feeling that one is accepted and free to voice divergent views – is the single best predictor of successful, effective teams. When members feel safe to voice divergent views, blind spots get highlighted, opportunities identified, and the team’s creative juices flow freely.

Other studies bear this out. Forbes reported that inclusive teams make better decisions 87% of the time. They also make decisions more quickly and generate better outcomes.

McKinsey found diverse companies generate financial returns that are 35% above industry averages.

And a BCG study found that organizations with above average diversity in their leadership generated 45% innovation revenue, versus 26% for firms with less diverse leadership teams.

And yet a recent ADP study noted that 39% of religious minorities in Canada are reluctant to speak up at work – that number is even higher than the comparable number for women or racial minorities. In addition, one-third of respondents have seen incidents of religious bias in their workplaces or have personally experienced them.

If religious minorities don’t feel safe to speak up, we risk losing their contributions and divergent thinking, and if we aren’t careful, we will also lose the ability to nurture potential leaders for our organizations. If we cannot create and sustain a welcoming workplace, our ability to attract, retain, and promote diverse team members will suffer.

What to do next

Educate yourself about the importance of religious literacy

If this isn’t an area you feel confident in, we invite you to start reading. Check out blogs, podcasts and articles on religious inclusion, follow thought leaders on social media and start opening conversations in your own circle. If you need a bit of extra help, Encounter has a variety of resources to help you learn more.

Assess your situation and your capacity

How religiously literate is your leadership team? And do they understand the importance of religious literacy in the workplace?

Ask for help if you need it

Because religion isn’t something we talk about freely, your organization may need some support in opening up these important conversations and learning from one another.

Set your goals

Whether you want to improve results from employee surveys, increase diversity in your leadership ranks, offer religious literacy training for your teams, or put supports in place for a more welcoming culture, it is crucial that you define your goals.

Find your champions

Every successful initiative needs a leader. You probably already have team members who are passionate about inclusion, have lived experience with religious diversity and inclusion, and who are committed to creating a welcoming workplace. This is a great opportunity to tap into the enthusiasm of future leaders as well.

Keep the conversations going

Consider what you might need to nurture the conversations. Training programs, roundtables, working groups, and community involvement are all ways to increase social connections and literacy – both of which are crucial to creating a welcoming culture.


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