In light of the first ever Muslim women to be elected into US congress, DiversityQ explores the challenges that face people of faith in the workplace, and how employers can provide an inclusive environment to get the most of their diverse staff.

There’s no denying that the challenges that Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib – the first Muslim women to be elected into US congress – face are vast, and not just in delivering their remit, but internally in their workspace as well. Aside from fending off the media and winning the trust of their constituency, they have the additional mammoth task of gaining the respect of their colleagues and peers in an environment that is unaccustomed to accommodating those of the Islamic faith.

And it’s not an issue that only affects our neighbours across the Atlantic. In Britain, there was a record number of anti-Muslim attacks and incidents of abuse in 2017, which experts have largely accredited to the growth of the far right. Likewise, according to a 2017 study conducted by research consultancy ComRes, up to a million people in Britain may have experienced faith-related discrimination at work. It goes without saying that discrimination of any type creates a hostile work environment and can affect employees’ performance as well as their mental well-being.

In fact, ComRes believes faith will be the “next pillar” in the growing need to diversify the workplace. In lieu of this, Chief executive Simon Carter says its Faith Research Centre will look at “how companies support their employees’ faith requirements in the same way that five years ago people looked at LGBT and five years before that they looked at gender.”

How you can create a faith-inclusive workplace

While there may not be much you can do about media-generated stereotypes, what you can do is create a work environment that goes beyond tolerance and actually strives to provide people of faith the tools they need to thrive. Here’s how.


  1. Ensure that your employees know that religious attire, such as headscarves, turbans or other symbols, are welcome

It sounds simple, but actually, those who wear obvious symbols of faith can feel quite intimidated when joining a new organisation. It’s not an easy one to tackle, but one way of ensuring that future employees know that you value diversity and promote equal opportunities is to include a paragraph on your website encouraging people from all faiths to apply for vacancies, and include imagery on your website/literature that shows a diverse workforce.


  1. Provide a prayer/reflection room that anyone can use during working hours

A prayer room does not have to be a state-of-the-art church or mosque with pews and a minbar. All you need is a spare room that has a door, some shelves to store prayer mats/books and some chairs. However, just having the room isn’t enough as ComRes research has revealed that some employees are completely unaware of available prayer spaces in their workplace. Be sure to include this information in your employee handbook and point out the room during a tour. If this is a new addition to your workplace, a memo to all staff alerting them and letting them know where it is should suffice.


  1. Allow staff to attend congregational prayers

It’s an important Islamic practice for Muslim men to attend Friday prayers, Friday being the holiest day of the week for Muslims. These prayers usually take place in mosques, last under an hour and will take place at some time between 12 noon and 2pm, depending on the season. The fact that it falls within standard lunchtimes is perfect and therefore shouldn’t disrupt your Muslim employee’s work. It’s important to be considerate to this and allow your staff to attend, even if their lunch break may ordinarily be at a different time. An open conversation is best, discussing work requirements and letting them know that they are welcome to attend Friday prayers, but of course, this must be juggled so as not to impact deadlines.


  1. If your workplace has a canteen, offer halal/kosher food, or ensure that those options are available at staff events and parties

It’s important to consider dietary requirements amongst your staff, especially during away days/events/ or even lunch meetings. Whilst Muslims can eat vegetarian and seafood that doesn’t contain alcohol, Jains cannot eat meat or root vegetables and Jews have strict kosher guidelines that include meat and dairy being prepared separately. For a staff member to show up to an event and find that there’s nothing suitable for them to consume implies that the employer just doesn’t care. One easy way to find out is to send out a short questionnaire on dietary requirements and ask HR to keep the results on file.


  1. Allow staff to take days off for their religious festivals…

…without making them feel bad about it. Whether they have to take the days from their annual leave or whether you allow them an extra day as a gesture of goodwill is up to you, but the latter is preferable. Not everyone needs a day off for Christmas or forced leave during the entire Christmas period, but everyone deserves a day off during their own festival.


  1. Provide diversity training for employees and managers

If you want to create a healthy, wholesome, inclusive workplace, this training is essential. You don’t have to restrict it to faith training only – you can include other minorities as well – and it can help your staff and you better understand each other. It can get tiresome, sometimes bordering on harassment, for headscarf-wearing women to repeatedly answer the question, “Do you wear that in the shower,” or Sikh men to be asked, “Is it true you never cut your hair?”


  1. Create a faith policy to include all the above

Set the tone for your workplace by creating a policy that embraces diversity and gives your employees the peace-of-mind that they – and their faith – are welcome, and that your organisation strives to cater to their religious needs. This is also important to let others know what is acceptable/unacceptable behaviour and the repercussions of discrimination.


  1. Most importantly… be diverse when you hire

It’s one thing talking about diversity and claiming to be inclusive, and another demonstrating it in the way that you hire. Nothing is more alienating for people of faith or minority groups, than to enter a workplace that has no-one else like them. Consider positively discriminating when seeking candidates for your next role. A diverse workplace is not only a creative, inspiring and energetic one, but research by  Harvard Business Review has found that diverse teams perform better as well.