Working for workplace religious diversity, equity & inclusion


Worried about the “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” Movement? – Don’t be!

11 Mar, 2021

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

Part of the blog series, Authenticity & Connection

The “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Movement” is inherently controversial because it’s overtly aimed at influencing social change. Still, DEI’s three stated goals can be embraced at a general level by nearly everyone:

Diversity: To gain richer and more creative perspectives for the running of business.

Equity: To advance equal opportunity for all.

Inclusion: To truly value the efforts and core identities of employees who have historically been excluded from significant engagement, decision-making and leadership.

Over the years, DEI’s early focus on race and ethnicity expanded, step by step, to include what previously were avoided topics (like gender, disability and various facets of sexual orientation); and the list is still growing. Each time these virtuous principles were applied to a new category, opposition was expressed. Is the new category really worthy of focus? Would emphasis on the new category dilute or damage other DEI efforts?

Adding “religious diversity” raises the same kinds of questions.

I’d submit that the very existence of such assumptions and fears presents a strong business case for action — a case for including religious diversity. This is so for four reasons:

(1) Whether we acknowledge it or not, faith is at work. People bring their core beliefs to work. They’re all around us. This isn’t changing. If anything, the world is becoming more religious; not less. In our increasingly diverse workplaces, it’s inevitable that people with whom we work will hold some beliefs and values that differ fundamentally from our own.

(2) Working with companies worldwide, we’ve seen that it’s entirely possible for people to respect and care about the welfare of coworkers whose core beliefs differ significantly from their own. One can come to deeply trust and admire people whose ethical codes concerning their personal life differ from one’s own.

(3) Nearly all faith traditions affirm the high dignity and value of every human being, regardless of that person’s belief or any other distinguishing factor. Almost all faiths affirm the principle of extending to everyone the same kindness and rights that we desire for ourselves. Accordingly, the vast majority of people of faith regularly support those who disagree with them in significant ways in their quest for fair and equal treatment at work. And it goes deeper. They visit the “others” in the hospital. They bring them meals. They attend their weddings. They pray for them. They care. They befriend. This is transformative, and reconciling, and uniting. This understanding is transformative, and reconciling, and uniting.

(4) Fact is, in the companies that have embraced faith and belief as part of their diversity focus, the fears about faith at work have been shown to have been unwarranted. There are occasional instances where an individual’s belief system purposefully projects ill will toward others, but that’s very rare. People across the diversity spectrum who’ve traveled the religious diversity path have been surprised by the harmony and positive changes enabled by the dialogue. As with other facets of diversity, bringing faith out of “the closet” enables healthy introspection all around. We in the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation have seen this borne out again and again.

I frequently attend and participate in conferences on DEI. A recent one, the excellent Forum on Workplace Inclusion , included sessions on maintaining one’s integrity in the age of compromise. Speakers expressed a hopefulness and belief that authentic and warm connection is possible across ideological lines. They shared inspiring real-life stories of reconciliation and warm connection between people who are often presumed to be adversaries. They spoke of a “DEI revolution” that involves a coming together “despite those who tried to divide us.” They reflected on the implications of “intersectionality,” including the fact that many LGBTQ people are people of deep faith; and that the diverse groups share core principles of civility. And they pointed out that it’s not a “zero sum game;” that to the contrary, addition of new DEI categories can strengthen all.

Among other things, this conference spotlighted the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation’s REDI Index, which shows that leading companies are increasingly embracing faith and belief as a factor worthy of attention in the broader sphere of DEI. These companies are realizing that for many people, it’s their faith that defines their core identity and that inspires them to excel at work. They see that a culture that stifles expression of employees’ core beliefs that relate to work can be soul-crushing; and a culture that listens to and respects people who embrace “different” beliefs can be inspiring and warm.

Some people worry that DEI training is really about thought police compelling conformity to a particular set of beliefs. We need to dispel this misunderstanding. If one were to insist that all employees affirm that the core values and beliefs of all diversity groups are of equal merit, that would force a “melting pot” culture that blurs differences. That’s not diversity; it’s forced conformity. It’s contrary to the principles of DEI. And it doesn’t work. If anything, the forced melting pot approach to faith and belief sparks resentment, division and suspicion on all sides. There’s a better way: Respect those whose beliefs differ and permit authentic dialogue on topics that relate to work.

This is, indeed, a hopeful time, if only we will listen deeply to one another, and care about those who are not “like us.” The heart and soul of the DEI “revolution” respects differences, and it doesn’t compel conformity. DEI themes can help unite us in a deeper, more profound way. For those goals to be reached, faith and belief must be included as an integral part of the DEI solution.

Wherever you stand on the spectrum, let’s not be worried about DEI. Let’s embrace what we all agree is right and good about it, and nurture authentic relationships of respect – and difference. Let us love one another. The world needs this.