In today’s increasingly interconnected world, workplaces are becoming more diverse than ever. While religious literacy and interfaith engagement initiatives remain relatively uncommon in Fortune 100 companies, The New York Times reports that the tide is turning on the long-standing separation of religion and work.
Amid inescapable global conflicts and increased hate activity, employers must rise to the occasion by supporting all employees, including those most vulnerable to religious bigotry. Yet The Times also highlights a concerning gap in senior leaders’ traditional engagement in direct discussions about religion in the workplace, resulting in a lack of expertise in using appropriate terminology or understanding the specific needs of faith groups.
To aid leaders navigating interfaith dynamics, this article explores practical ways to build bridges and cultivate safe spaces for Jewish and Muslim colleagues, focusing specifically on advancing workplace inclusion in the context of the recent rise of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism documented by organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in the wake of the Israel-Gaza crisis.
A Growing Concern: The Rise of Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia
Anti-Semitism, “the belief or behavior hostile toward Jews just because they are Jewish,” and Islamophobia, “closed-minded prejudice against or hatred” specifically directed towards Muslims and Islam, have seen a disturbing rise in recent weeks. These concerning trends, fueled by rising misinformation and intolerance, are currently impacting nearly every aspect of Jewish and Muslim life.
Combating Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the Workplace
Taking a firm stance against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and creating safe and supportive workplaces for Jewish and Muslim employees has never been more critical. In professional settings, Jewish and Muslim employees face a range of unique challenges arising from prejudice, misunderstanding, and lack of awareness. These obstacles can include microaggressions, discriminatory behavior, and lack of religious accommodation.
Creating Inclusive Workplaces for Jewish and Muslim Employees
Companies can create a more welcoming workplace for Jewish and Muslim colleagues by taking the following specific steps:
- Implement Clear Policies and Practices: This includes establishing anti-discrimination policies, combating social media misconduct with clearly defined rules, addressing microaggressions effectively, and rapidly responding to anti-Semitic and Islamophobic comments and behavior. Creating a secure and confidential mechanism—such as an ethics hotline enabling employees to seek support and report misconduct without fear of retaliation—can also increase compliance and provide a vital lifeline.
- Prevent Religious Bias and Discrimination: Training programs, workshops, and listening circles can equip employees and leaders to understand and combat religious bias. These initiatives can effectively raise awareness about the adverse effects of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the workplace, fostering a more nuanced understanding of religious difference. By emphasizing the importance of being an upstander and an ally, leaders can also significantly reduce the likelihood of discriminatory speech or behavior.
- Invest in Mental Well-Being: Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) can act as a safety net during challenging times, offering expanded access to stress management, counseling, and other care benefits. Flexible time-off options further prioritize employee mental health and well-being during moments of crisis.
- Build Community with ERGs: Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) provide valuable platforms for Jewish and Muslim employees and their allies to connect and share experiences, advance inclusive mentorship, advocate for community needs, ensure an inclusive customer experience, and build strong support networks. Building impactful ERGs, however, requires deliberate planning, genuine commitment, and sustained support. Superficial efforts can backfire and be perceived as inauthentic.
- Partner with Advocacy Groups: Partner with Advocacy Groups: Collaborations with prominent advocacy organizations such as CAIR and the American Jewish Committee provide expert resources and advice, empowering companies to combat workplace discrimination against Muslims and Jews while fostering a culture of respect and understanding for all faiths.
- Actively Engage with Jewish and Muslim Talent: By actively listening to and checking in with Jewish and Muslim employees, companies can build a more inclusive, engaging, and supportive work environment where everyone feels valued and heard. Open dialogue and personal story sharing leads to improved employee understanding and belonging, a stronger sense of psychological safety, and a more culturally competent and religiously literate workforce.
- Champion Religious Inclusion: According to Tanenbaum, best practices for supporting religious diversity in the workplace include establishing “quiet rooms” accessible to all employees for prayer, relaxation, and reflection, implementing an interfaith calendar for thoughtful consideration of religious holidays and observances, providing respectful accommodation for religious attire, respecting faith-based dietary restrictions at company events and cafeterias, and clearly communicating religious practice and decoration policies to all employees.
Bridging the Divide: The Rise of Interfaith ERGs
In an increasingly divided world, interfaith ERGs are emerging as a powerful tool for fostering inclusivity and understanding across religious and cultural lines. Goldman Sachs, for example, recently announced the expansion of its ERG focused on “religion and culture.” By providing a unique platform for employees to connect, learn from each other, and celebrate their differences, these groups can contribute to the cultivation of a more respectful, collegial, and conducive work environment for all.
The Benefits of Interfaith ERGs
- Increased Employee Engagement: Valuing employees of faith improves morale, commitment, collaboration, and sense of belonging.
- Strengthened DEI Efforts: Fostering open, ongoing dialogue creates a more authentic, resilient, and inclusive workplace culture defined by mutual support and understanding.
- Improved Client and Customer Relationships: Recognizing and demonstrating respect for underrepresented religious communities helps build trust and loyalty with clients and customers.
- Personal Growth and Connection: Encouraging employees to learn about different faiths and broaden their perspectives helps them build meaningful relationships with colleagues, advancing inclusive knowledge-sharing practices across the organization.
Addressing Potential Challenges
While the benefits of interfaith ERGs outweigh the risks, acknowledging and addressing the following potential challenges remains crucial to success:
- Perception of Promoting Specific Beliefs: Emphasize open dialogue and learning, not the promotion of specific religious ideologies.
- Theological Disagreements: Encourage respectful debate and discover common ground while acknowledging and navigating important theological differences.
- Concerns from Non-Religious Employees: Ensure inclusivity and open participation for all, regardless of religious affiliation, and create safe spaces in which all voices are respected and valued.
- Lack of Representation: Establish an interfaith leadership team reflecting the full spectrum of beliefs, including underrepresented and non-religious perspectives.
Converging and Diverging Communities: A New Frontier in DEI?
The Times suggests that the recent push to include faith groups in DEI programs could breathe new life into the field, offering a counterpoint to DEI and Talent leaders’ growing concerns about potential cuts during a period of heightened economic uncertainty. Today’s top-performing organizations are increasingly recognizing the impact a DEI strategy encompassing religious inclusion can have on reputational capital and brand loyalty.
One thing’s certain: building innovative and expanded DEI programs in the current climate requires a new playbook. While focused execution and clear direction remain crucial, recent research on religious inclusion reveals a surprising truth: cultivating ambiguity and creating space for conflicting perspectives are equally important for organizational agility and success.
From interfaith ERGs to innovative workplace chaplain programs, the future of work’s social contract will be rooted in intersectional partnerships as much as in affinity groups. A new inclusion imperative is steadily emerging: a redefined concept of progress as a process of growing together—and separately.
Learn more about integrating religious inclusion into your DEI strategy with Seramount’s Guide to Supporting Jewish Employees and Guide to Supporting Muslim Employees.