How can a benefits proposition support different faiths in the workplace?

Need to know:

  • Employers need to think about ensuring workers from all faiths can thrive if they want to engage and retain talent.
  • Measures that could help might include flexible leave policies for religious festivals, prayer rooms and tolerant dress codes.
  • Benefits professionals will need to ensure they offer suitable pension investments and teambuilding activities.

In an increasingly multi-cultural society, most businesses will contain staff drawn from different religions, and ensuring all individuals are able to observe their faith is an important part of creating a contented and harmonious workforce. In the current competitive jobs market, this is vital in retaining staff, and creating the engaged and motivated workforce on which employers rely.

A good starting point for employers looking to ensure they have suitable arrangements in place is to understand the make-up of their organisation, says Hussain Kayani, principal employment law solicitor at WorkNest. “Without this, it is difficult to know in which direction efforts should be steered and which conversations need to be had to make the workplace more inclusive,” he explains. “This information can usually be achieved with a diversity survey. Once an employer has this information, it can reflect and review how current practices could be amended to make the organisation more inclusive.”

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Open dialogue

Sabah Ahmedi is known as the Young Imam, and regularly works to break down stereotypes around Islam and encourage interfaith dialogue. He suggests employers should also seek input from staff. “Discuss how the [organisation] can support employees of different faiths, and encourage employees to share their experiences and suggestions,” he says.

“Employers can also conduct a survey to gather feedback from employees on how they would like to be supported in the workplace. This can be done anonymously to encourage employees to be more open and honest.”

Religious leaders can help organisations better understand the needs of their employees and to develop policies and practices that are respectful of different religions, he adds.

In practical terms, there are a few areas that may need addressing, including ensuring holiday policies allow people to have time off around the important days in their calendar. Tina Chander, head of employment law at Wright Hassall, says: “While in the UK there’s no current law around the right for employees to have time off on religious holidays, to be truly supportive of different faiths, employers should be flexible around all religious holidays and sensitive around annual leave.

“The UK bank holiday structure is based on a Christian calendar, but not all employees will celebrate these holidays, and some may prefer to have their days off at different times of the year for their preferred religious celebrations. Being reasonably flexible can give space for all employees to take part in their own religious festivals and celebrations.”

Caitlin Pyett, consulting lead and director of account management, Asia, at corporate relocation firm Crown World Mobility, has seen at first hand some of the inequalities people in multi-cultural teams sometimes face. “Before relocating to Hong Kong, I was based in Singapore,” she says. “Singapore, like many countries, is a [multi-cultural] country, but it has a definite Chinese majority. In the [organisation] I was working for, Chinese festivals were treated as the default.

“[Employers], no matter where they are located, must embrace and respect the faiths of all employees, not just that of the majority, when designing policies surrounding days off and celebrations.”

Practical workplace support

Sometimes there are other practical considerations, too. Employees may need particular support during Ramadan, a month-long period when Muslims will not eat between dawn and sunset. Jim Moore, employee relations partner at HR consultancy Hamilton Nash, says: “Employers should be flexible with working patterns to help employees who are fasting. This might involve letting staff take their breaks at different times of day, or allowing them to work from home or more flexibly.”

It is also important to make provisions to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs and needs in the work environment. “Although it’s not a legal requirement, one of the best ways to do this is to have a dedicated prayer space,” says Chander. “This could be a permanent room or a meeting room that’s available at certain times of the day. Diversity and inclusion training can help all employees to understand why there’s a prayer room and what this means for them and others.”

Consideration should be given to ensuring dress codes do not have negative effects on employees from particular faiths. Luke Bowery, a partner in the employment law team at UK law firm Burges Salmon, says: “A sense-check on any changes is always recommended. It is sensible to include employee consultation bodies when drawing up or reviewing [a] dress code policy, particularly if [the] policy restricts what people can wear in a way which might interfere with an employee who wants, or is required, by their religious beliefs, to wear symbols of their faith.”

If restrictions do have to be put in place there needs to be a good reason, he adds: “A policy which prevents an employee from wearing jewellery may be justifiable if the employee is operating machinery where the jewellery may get caught, but that restriction will be more difficult for an employer to justify if it also applies to office-based employees.”

Pensions investment considerations

Benefits professionals will have other issues to consider, including whether pension policies offer investment choices to suit employees of different faiths. Richard Knight, a partner in the pensions team at UK law firm Burges Salmon, explains: “While many schemes, including [those provided by] Pension Bee, Nest and Aviva, do offer Shariah pension funds, it is not a legal requirement under automatic-enrolment legislation to provide a faith option. Failure to provide such an option may result in members bringing discrimination claims, as was the case last year when Uber was threatened with legal action for not providing a Shariah-compliant pension fund for its predominately Muslim workforce.”

It is also important to factor in the position of different faiths when it comes to arranging teambuilding or other social events such as inductions. “Employers should be looking to offer a balance of activities to make sure that not all entertainment is reliant on alcohol,” says Bowery. “Where alcohol is core to the activity, make sure that non-alcoholic alternatives are available and that the event is tailored so that those who don’t drink, whether for reasons of faith or otherwise, are catered for appropriately.”

While not necessarily in HR’s remit, it is a good idea to ensure canteens offer a wide range of food too, including vegetarian, vegan and halal options.

There are clear reasons why it makes sense to create workplaces that allow people from all faiths to thrive. As Hugh O’Keeffe, diversity and inclusion lead at Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion (ENEI), explains: “Establishing a clear, accommodating and respectful approach to multi-faith teams can not only attract and retain a diverse workforce but supports a culture of respect that can lead to higher employee engagement, morale and improved business outcomes.

“Ultimately, creating an inclusive workplace is the right thing to do. All individuals have the right to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their religious beliefs or background. By taking steps to create an inclusive workplace, employers can help to promote equality and social inclusion, and create a better world for everyone.”