Working for workplace religious diversity, equity & inclusion


“THOSE people are awful! But …”

23 Jan, 2021

by Kent Johnson, J.D., Senior Corporate Advisor, Religious Freedom & Business Foundation

Part of the blog series, Authenticity & Connection – Join Kent’s conversation on Facebook or LinkedIn.

“THOSE people are awful!” [But my coworker is one, and she seems to be a pretty good person…]

Have you ever heard that kind of mixed sentiment?

Personal familiarity often overcomes categorical bias. In the workplace, when diverse employees engage meaningfully over time with one another, they can get a more nuanced view of their colleagues’ character as it relates to their work. Turns out, “those people” aren’t so bad (at least not all of them) …

My point is that our diverse workplaces provide fertile ground for bridge-building relationships to flourish. As we spend hours at work co-laboring to achieve shared goals, we begin to witness how one of “those” people navigates the daily challenges of work. Even in the current virtual work mode, we get signals of our coworkers’ character from thousands of incidents like these:

– A manager openly commends someone for correcting her.
– A salesperson refuses to take an unethical shortcut which could’ve won him a big sale.
– A coworker ascribes credit to others where it’s due, though the coworker could’ve easily kept all the credit for himself.
– Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg befriended Justice Antonin Scalia.

We draw character inferences – good and bad – from brief glances like those. Our inferences may be wildly inaccurate, because, frankly, most of the time we have no idea what really makes our coworkers “tick,” and our unconscious biases can distort our perceptions of what we see. We’re told about the importance of trust and teamwork; but we’re left in the dark about our colleagues’ hearts and minds.

WHY do our coworkers do what they do at work? What are the work-related core beliefs and principles that they aspire to follow? It seems inappropriate to ask. Often, it feels like avenues for deeper connection are blocked. Our corporate culture is too fearful to let us truly connect.Management is worried that if we really knew one another’s core motivations, we’d hate one another. Seems the presumption is that we can only “tolerate” each other from a distance; we can only work civilly together so long as we remain ignorant of our coworker’s core identity. (Heaven forbid we learn they’re one of “them!”). We’re worried that opening the “pandora’s box” of religion and belief and core defining principles would cause chaos.

This kind of fear accelerates the growing frenzy of rancor and distrust. We can do better.

Before I go further with this post, I want to make something crystal clear: We’re not advocating a corporate culture that puts employees on the spot and compels deep self-disclosure. That kind of compulsion wrongfully invades people’s privacy and can create an oppressive environment. Besides, it’s wildly counterproductive. Forced disclosure of core beliefs and values is, almost inevitably, inauthentic. Everyone must be free to opt out with no negative implications at all.

That said, we at the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation have seen how a purposeful championing of freedom of religion and belief in companies can enable voluntary, authentic connection among those who want it. And where this happens, it’s powerfully freeing. And affirming. And “catching.” Many (not all) of our coworkers are aching to tell us about their core beliefs and principles; but they’re waiting for permission to open that box. When they see a few being transparent and vulnerable, they begin to see that it’s ok for them to be transparent and vulnerable too; and to listen to others. It’s even ok for “bosses” to speak from their heart (what a thought)!For many, that’s liberating.

What’s the alternative? Shall we perpetuate the current predominant culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell” about core beliefs and values that pertain to our everyday work?

Some readers are probably thinking it’s way too touchy and hard to promote this kind of deep authenticity in the workplace. We can report that it’s not.This is doable. Companies that have already started down this road can help. The Religious Freedom and Business Foundation can help. So can a growing number of faith-at-work organizations, and multi-faith chaplains, and HR professionals.

There’s great cause for optimism here. Increasingly, corporate leaders, business school faculty members, social psychologists and HR consultants are extolling the benefits of full personal engagement, transparency and authenticity in the workplace. The time is ripe to take the next step toward truly valuing our employees for who they are, by championing their freedom of religion and belief. We can free workers to have deeper one-to-one connections in the workplace – connections across diverse cultures. Over time, those one-on-one relationships, built on personal knowledge and authentic connection, step by step, can help dissolve the barriers of distrust and suspicion that are strangling society today.

It’s happening in more and more companies. There’s no need to fear. Climb aboard. And join the conversation on Facebook or LinkedIn.

Join us as we overcome unconscious bias at the second annual National Faith@Worth ERG Conference, held virtually Feb. 9th-11th, 2021. Register today!