THE BLOG
09/17/2013 05:04 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2013

Religion at Work: Who's Listening?

Recently, with appropriate fanfare, we acknowledged the 50 year anniversary of the March on Washington. Many of us paused to consider that pivotal event and what it means to America today. There were numerous public discussions on how far we have come in race relations, how far we need to go and how the civil rights movement influenced other movements for equality -- for women; the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community; and people with disabilities, among others. Indeed, the march was an empowering event. It represents another step in our national movement for the respect of differences and inclusion of people across our society.

Though these discussions covered an array of important social, economic and political issues, they were generally silent on a matter that touches many Americans: religious bias and discrimination. Most discussions failed to consider how our nation's powerful movement for justice and civil rights affected freedom of religion for people from every tradition and none. That's probably because religion remains the step-child of diversity and inclusion discussions, even though it is a salient identity that affects the majority of Americans and emerges in both their private and public lives.

To be fair, addressing religion and those who are religiously different is not easy. To be true to the promise of liberty from which the civil rights movement drew strength, we must find ways to include people from religions that are different from the traditional Christian base of our nation. We must also acknowledge and include people who consider themselves "none," meaning people who don't identify with any religion (e.g., atheists, agnostics, spiritual but not religious).

Religion is different from the other identities for which social justice movements have emerged. It is only sometimes visible and often the source of a powerful truth for believers. And yet, different beliefs inform many public policies: from abortion to the death penalty. They also inform how people conduct themselves in daily life and how they interact.

To better understand this phenomenon, a new survey from the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding explores what Americans really think. Looking to the one place where people from these diverse beliefs interact most regularly, Tanenbaum conducted a national survey, "What American Workers Really Think About Religion." The survey asked American workers about their experiences with religion and religious discrimination both at work and more generally.

The results give us reason to pause. Not only are our workplaces becoming more diverse, but discrimination on the basis of religion and conflicts among people of different beliefs are escalating at alarming rates. Worse still, many companies are still not responding with the inclusive policies that will poise them for success.

The survey found that across the nation, nearly one out of two Americans is working in a company with 500 or more employees, and that those companies have moderate or high social diversity. To provide a clear measure of the diversity and amount of interaction workers actually have, the survey used a social diversity scale to measure the frequency that workers interact with a range of groups in the American workplace, accounting for race, sexual orientation and religion. The findings showed a direct correlation between the size of companies, and increased interaction among diverse workers.

In my work as a diversity professional, I have met many people who believe that such exposure to diverse individuals and groups can reduce prejudice. And, often, that is a real experience. However, the survey also shows that there is more conflict in the short-term with several very different groups reporting marginalization and discrimination. Nearly six out of ten atheists feel that people look down on their beliefs, as do nearly one-third of non-Christian religious workers and white evangelical Protestants. In addition, 60 percent of white evangelical Protestants say that discrimination against Christians is now as big a problem as discrimination against religious minorities. When it comes to religion, therefore, the diversity and inclusion movement is not just for people from minority religious and non-religious traditions but, also, for members of the majority Christian community as well.

Employers may have different reactions to this data. Some may seek to retain homogeneity in an effort to avoid conflict, but they do so at their own risk. Such an approach has a serious business cost. Workers who provide the most value to companies do not come from one race, gender, ability status or religion. Top talent comes from every group and every religious belief. And they can choose where they want to work. Companies that fail to accommodate beliefs will be at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting or retaining talented employees who have strongly held religious beliefs or none.

In one recent situation, a global financial services company shared that it was courting a woman for a high-level position at their firm. The candidate was Muslim and covered her hair with her hijab. She was deciding between two companies and chose to take a position at the competing firm. When the hiring manager asked, "What made you choose our competitor?" the candidate explained that the other company was known for being more "hijab friendly."

That's one key reason why smart companies will look at the survey data and take action. They will adopt proactive accommodation policies and create environments of respect. In doing so, they will also become more successful. In fact, American workers at companies that adopt such policies report higher morale and are less likely to be searching for a new job. That means their companies are both attracting more talent and retaining it. And ultimately, that is a win-win for both employers and employees.

America is facing a critical point in our social and cultural progression. Will we continue what the March on Washington started 50 years ago? Will we continue to embrace diversity, including religious diversity? A measure of our commitment will be how companies across America respond to what workers are saying about religion at work. I hope they are listening.