Can Religious Beliefs and Inclusion Efforts go hand in hand?

In 2016, David Hall; a Social Security Administration employee who had been working with the Government Agency at Champaign, Illinois for 14 years refused to watch a ‘Diversity Training’ video stating that it was against his religious beliefs regarding the LGBT community. Inspite of repeated warnings, Hall refused to comply even at the risk of losing his job. In 2016, an online petition against Target raised over 1.2 Million signatures to boycott the retailer if they didn’t reverse their Public Restroom Policy which was based on gender inclusivity which allowed guests and staff to use whichever bathroom corresponded to their gender identity. In 2017, Joanne Lockwood, a Diversity and Inclusion Consultant herself was refused printing services by a firm due to her material being deemed ‘against religious values’. These are just few examples of the hundreds of incidents we come across on social networking websites and the media in general.

Diversity as a subject matter has made significant waves in the corporate world with a number of organizations – multinational giants and SMEs/ startups alike investing into initiatives to have an inclusive work culture.

While many agree that equal opportunities and anti discrimination policies need to be in place for minorities across the spectrum be it gender, sexual identity, cultural and ethnicity, age, physical capabilities or even religious expression; where does a company draw a line between an employee’s right to express his religious views and at the same time effectively reinforcing a work environment where all individuals enjoy equal opportunities of expression and comfort at a personal level which highly impacts business processes and profitability?

According to recent surveys by Deloitte; in today's political, economic, and global business environment, diversity has become increasingly important. The number of executives who cited inclusion as a top priority has risen 32 percent from the Human Capital Trends 2014 survey, and in the last three years, the percentage of companies that rate themselves excellent at gender diversity went up by 72 percent. Based on this year’s survey, 48 percent of companies consider themselves adequate at focusing on global cultural diversity, and 69 percent of companies consider themselves adequate or excellent at supporting a variety of family models in the workforce.

With research and statistics stating that diversity and inclusion does bring about visible change in the way organizations perform; how can leadership and company management try to implement this into the heart of corporate culture without upsetting religious sentiments and getting staff to willingly conform?

When Iris Bohnet; a Professor and Behavioural Economist with Harvard University advocated changing environments rather than mindsets; citing the example of hotels where key cards were introduced instead of enforcing rules to get guests to switch off their lights when leaving their rooms – she was convinced through data how inequalities can be addressed using small design changes rather than major alterations which need to be enforced on people. Many a times these rules which are enforced or put across as ‘mandatory’ are met with resistance and a “Why do I need to do it” attitude which defeats the whole purpose of what Diversity and Inclusion teams are trying to achieve.

So what can companies do to promote diversity without stepping on anybody’s toes and achieve results?

Hire and employ techniques that do not qualify as ‘force-feeding’ or ‘mandatory’ but instead ingrain diversity and inclusion in the methods that are more effective

According to a 2016 issue in the Harvard Business Review; based on studies by Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev; professors at the Harvard University and the Tel Aviv University respectively, in analyzing three decades’ worth of data from more than 800 U.S. firms and interviewing hundreds of line managers and executives at length, they found that companies get better results when they ease up on the control tactics. It’s more effective to engage managers in solving the problem, increase their on-the-job contact with female and minority workers, and promote social accountability. That’s why interventions such as targeted college recruitment, mentoring programs, self-managed teams, and task forces have boosted diversity in businesses. Some of the most effective solutions weren’t even designed with diversity in mind.

Their findings are not far off from a research conducted by the University of Toronto: In one study subjects had to read a brochure containing diversity material. When people felt pressure to agree with it, the reading strengthened their bias against minorities. When they felt the choice was theirs, the reading reduced bias. As social scientists have found, people often rebel against rules to assert their autonomy. If they are coerced to do something, they will oppose just to prove that they are their own person.

It would be easier for an individual to participate in a training or workshop sensitizing the participants to all minority groups (differently abled individuals, senior citizens, racial minorities and other sexual identities) rather than having a separate LGBT training video which automatically brings their guard up and refusal to participate.