Go beyond surface activism to be culturally and religiously inclusive in the workplace

Published on: Thu 28 April 2022 by Dumi Senda

An important aspect to creating an inclusive workplace is celebrating special calendar dates such as religious holidays, cultural occasions and awareness days/weeks/months. But how many times do we see well-meaning sentiments shared in organisations just on these days?

The sentiments come from a place of wanting to do better in how colleagues from different cultural and religious backgrounds are treated in the workplace so yes, it’s important to provide the support to those who want to become more intentional but are not sure how to start.

However, they risk entrenching the inequality they are shared to address by normalising the insider-outsider binary around how society, and by extension workplaces, are organised.

Treating some cultures and religions as ‘the norm’ and others as exceptions

Being that on dates such as Christmas and Easter, organisations shut shop, yet, on other key dates, some employee groups must rely on the goodwill of their colleagues to observe their religious and cultural practices, points to an imbalance that is baked into society.

Given this imbalance, the question of how to level the playing field in the workplace becomes more important than we may ordinarily consider.

In an increasingly globalized world, where workplaces have become melting pots of different cultures and religions, taking a ‘this-is-the-way-things-have-always-been-done-around-here’ approach causes more damage to the state of our workplace inclusivity than we may realise.

Research shows that there are more Black and Asian employees who feel that their cultures and religions are not respected by their employers than there are white employees.

Of the Black and Asian people who feel culturally and religiously margenalised in the workplace, most stated that their line managers expect them to keep their cultures and religions from ‘interfering’ with their work.

Being ‘nice’ will not solve the issue

Any of us can fall into the trap of ‘surface activism’, which involves well-intended advocacy but at the risk of either glossing over the underlying causes of inequality or further entrenching existing power asymmetries between us and the people we are attempting to ‘liberate’.

When we think of inclusion as being a triangle with three mutually reinforcing co-ordinates, representing Behavioral, Cultural and Structural factors, we may realise that our well-meaning lists of what people should do or not do to be religiously and culturally inclusive, at best, scratch the surface, and at worst, risk undermining the severity of the issues.

Black and Asian employees in the corporate sector interviewed following the murder of George Floyd, stated that asking for time off work for religious and cultural observance counted against them during performance evaluation and promotion.

Whilst they were granted time off (not without a struggle), the perception that they should be at work, and therefore taking the time off is an exception to the established norm (workplace culture), biased the processes (people management structures) of performance evaluation and promotion against them (line manager attitudes/behaviors).

Without normalising the observance of margenalised cultures and religions in organisations, minoritised employee groups will continue to suffer the injustice of being ‘othered’ and sidelined despite best intentions and efforts of their majority white colleagues to be more considerate.

The margenalisation is compounded by the poor representation of people of ethnic minoritised backgrounds in management and senior leadership roles. Further diminishing their positional power, making them more reliant on the goodwill of others, which can be given and withdrawn at will.

Do not usher ‘solutions’, give margenalised employee groups a seat at the table of power

Whilst organisations do not determine how broader society is organised around cultural and religious practices, they CAN ensure that workplaces engender genuine cultural and religious inclusivity by giving margenalised employee groups a seat at the table of power.  

Employers CAN place equal value behind the cultural and religious practices of all, not just some, of their people. This entails going beyond ‘surface inclusion’ such as giving people time off, without protecting them when they are sidelined and overlooked for having taken the time off.

The key is to not assume that you know how to create meaningful inclusion for culturally and religiously margenalised employee groups without consulting, involving and enabling them to shape the way forward.

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