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Religion: The forgotten dimension of workplace diversity

9 Nov, 2022

Evaluating Workplace Religious Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Using the Kaizen HC Model of Religious Inclusion

By Dr. Ed Hasan, Washington, DC


Should a public servant be allowed to wear a crucifix at work? What about a kippah or a hijab?

These are deceptively simple questions that have been hotly debated throughout the world—in fact, the question of whether or not police officers should be allowed to wear religious dress has resurfaced in the Netherlands where it continues to be disallowed. So often the answer depends on one’s own religious conviction or lack thereof—and the conversation can descend into a quagmire of personal beliefs and perceptions about the role of neutrality in the public sector.

At the heart of these conversations is actually the concept of belonging: Who gets to show up as their full selves at work? And, how do we know the answer to that question?

It is undeniable that religious affiliation is a central influence on people’s identities. Despite this, religiously diverse people have been all but forgotten in workplace efforts around diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) initiatives. This means that organizations that embrace the importance of workers bringing their full identities to work when it comes to gender and race are ignoring a critical component of identity: religion. At the same time, according to a new Deseret News/HarrisX survey, 80% of business leaders say employees’ being open about their faiths is “good for company culture.”

So while many leaders see the importance of faith at work and are open to religion-related programming, religiously diverse people and religious identity aren’t being integrated into formal structures and DEIB initiatives the same way race and gender are. (It’s not all on business leaders. Only 54% of non-leaders agreed that faith is good for company culture—many seemingly due to a fear of repercussions or tension with colleagues.) Often, the result is that workers are forced to hide their religion. Employers would never require a worker to hide their race or gender–that would be unimaginable. Why, then, should we expect employees to hide their religious identities?

To become an organization that reaches DEIB maturity, it is imperative to embrace religious identity alongside other identities—and to do so formally and with as much dedication as any other identity.

But how does an organization, its leaders and employees, and society at large know how successful we are at including religious identity at work? How do we know what to do next?

Image credit: Dr. Ed Hasan, Washington, DC

Built upon both scholarship around religious diversity and work with organizations seeking to become more inclusive, the Kaizen HC Model of Religious Inclusion helps organizations, leaders, and workers evaluate religious inclusion practices and determine what the path ahead might be. There are four levels to the model:

Level 1: Avoidance – Organizations at this level do not recognize the need for religious diversity in the workplace. Most Level 1 organizations are homogenous and avoid the subject of religion or promote only one religion, often the dominant societal religion. Avoidance might look like refusing to discuss religious accommodations with employees whose needs are deemed strange or are different from the dominant religion, for example.

Level 2: Compliance – Organizations that reach this level meet existing legal requirements, but go no further. Level 2 organizations are guided by a desire to avoid lawsuits and associated costs. For instance, to be compliant, an organization may say that employees who are Muslim women are allowed to wear the hijab at work, but in reality, that employer might not actually hire any Muslim women who wear the hijab. Just because the bare minimum is being done to meet legal protections doesn’t mean religious people are actually being protected.

Level 3: Emerging – Organizations that reach this level seek to make their workplaces safe for people of all religious backgrounds (or none) and see the benefits of including religious diversity among other DEIB efforts. Level 3 organizations are content with their internal work and do not seek to push the external conversation further. This may result in a broad expression of religious “tolerance,” but it doesn’t necessarily create belonging—a concept organizations at this level still find elusive. This can translate to microaggressions between coworkers who may not share religious identities.

Level 4: Transformational – Organizations that reach the final level ensure that religiously diverse people aren’t just safe and included, but also belong at the workplace as religious people. For Level 4 organizations, religion is an integral part of their DEIB strategy and programming—including employee resource groups. Furthermore, organizations at this level advocate externally for religious freedom in society and the workplace. A compelling example of a Transformational organization is Chobani, the yogurt maker, which has time and again advocated for all their employees to be their full selves–inclusive of religious identity and refugee status. In the case of CEO Hamdi Ulukaya this has looked like speaking publicly about the importance of hiring and supporting religiously diverse employees, advocating for the rights of all workers inclusive of religious identities, and much more. The Corporate Religious Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (REDI) Index also provides insight into the companies that are most faith-friendly workplaces, many of which could be described as reaching Level 4, including American Airlines, an organization which utilizes ERGs, provides chaplain care, and makes accommodations available for religiously diverse employees, among many other efforts.

You might be tempted to jump in and use this model immediately to decide if your organization is doing a “good” or “bad” job at religious inclusion. You might even want to change everything at your workplace. While that energy is commendable, it’s best to slow down, take a deep breath, and reassure yourself that this isn’t black and white. This model is not meant to be one size fits all or to give any organization a stamp of approval. Instead, the Kaizen HC Model of Religious Inclusion is a living tool that works in concert with other frameworks, initiatives, and philosophies to help you chart the path ahead.

Most importantly, this framework can help you identify organizations at the level you’re reaching for, what work they’ve done around religious inclusion, what they’ve learned through the process, and how they moved from one level to another. In Embracing Workplace Religious Diversity and Inclusion, we explore several organizations and the specific scenarios they have faced, even rating them on the scale, so you can become fluent with the tool and its application.

Regardless of where your organization falls on this model, don’t panic or give up. Organizational cultures evolve and change—using this model, you can help shape your culture to become all the more inclusive of religiously diverse people.


Want to learn more about the Kaizen HC Model of Religious Inclusion and about the business, moral, and legal cases for inclusion? Pick up Embracing Workplace Religious Diversity and Inclusion, Dr. Ed Hasan’s in-depth exploration of the current state of workplace religious diversity and inclusion where the Kaizen HC Model of Religious Inclusion is first introduced.