How to Educate Teams on Different Religions and Cultures

 A diverse and inclusive workforce extends beyond race and ethnicity to include cultural and religious practices. If offices in the U.S. continue to mark Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter, it’s important to also consider the position of those with non-Christian religious beliefs.

This, of course, is a complex issue. Religious differences still ignite violence around the world and not long ago routinely turned soccer matches into riot scenes. Outside of integrated neighborhoods where people of diverse backgrounds can develop strong bonds, the workplace offers one of the best opportunities for people to peel away the myths and misunderstandings about non-Christian religions and cultures and replace fear and indifference with understanding and respect.

Even if a company does not offer days off for religious holidays outside of those observed in Christianity, businesses should still strive to consider and accommodate the needs of employees who observe different holidays and customs.

What Can Businesses Do?

The first step to educating teams on different religions and cultures is for management to make it a priority. Change, in this case, typically starts at the top. Executives and managers should familiarize themselves with religious discrimination and accommodation in the workplace rules from the federal government. They also should know Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to prohibit discrimination based on religious beliefs.

The Civil Rights Act also requires employers to “reasonably accommodate” an employee’s “sincerely held religious, ethical and moral beliefs or practices, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.”

But a desire to conform to the letter of the law should not drive an employer’s focus on creating a workplace of diversity and inclusion. Rather, it’s a chance to close cultural divides, creating a better atmosphere for all employees and reaping the benefits of a diverse workforce that strives toward shared goals.

Make Cultural Education a Priority

While it might seem impractical to mark every occasion that is important to every religion, managers should make an effort to understand large, important holidays and some of the customs around them.

This knowledge can help people avoid situations such as putting an observant Muslim into an awkward position by inviting her to business lunch during Ramadan.

As pointed out by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), it’s important for managers and fellow employees to consider what a non-Christian employee might feel when holiday parties are called Christmas parties, only Christian holidays are observed or when work schedules conflict with their religious practices.

SHRM advises that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training include religious differences as well as other facets of diversity.

“Make it clear that it is the responsibility of every employee to be aware, knowledgeable and respectful of a wide range of religious and nonreligious beliefs,” SHRM writes.

Employees also should practice allyship for those with non-Christian religious practices. An ally supports people in underrepresented groups of which they are not a member. In this context, for example, an ally would support those subjected to insensitive or harassing conduct because of their religious beliefs.

Another smart step is to make parties in December “end of the year” celebrations rather than one that revolves around a religious belief. Meal planning and gift-giving should also take other religious beliefs and cultures into consideration.

Flexible holidays and schedules can help people of different cultures and faith work around days they want to take off for religious observances. Other ideas include:

  • Providing quiet spaces at the office where employees can pray or take a quiet break.
  • Providing training for employees on how to learn about their co-workers’ religious preferences through respectful discussions.
  • Ensuring policies don’t inadvertently discriminate, such as dress code that doesn’t allow for religious garb or facial hair.

For those who practice non-Christian faiths, it’s up to them to decide how much they want to profess their faith at work. Bonnie Azoulay, an Orthodox Jew, advises people to speak upfront with employers about any religious or cultural accommodations they need, stay consistent with their practices and seek out supportive employers.

The Biggest Religions in the World

The following provides a starting point for those who want to understand the religious and cultural beliefs of co-workers and employees.

With an estimated 2.3 billion adherents, Christianity is the largest religion in the world. The U.S. also has the most Christians, at an estimated 229 million. U.S. residents brought up in areas where Christianity is practiced by the vast majority of their neighbors, classmates and friends might not have much information about the world’s other religions. Some of the largest are:

Islam– The second largest religion in the world, Islam is a monotheistic faith that centers on one God (Allah) and Muhammad, his prophet. Followers are known as Muslims. The faith started in Mecca (now part of Saudi Arabia). The most important religious book in Islam is the Quran. About 80% of all Muslims are Sunni, with about 15% practicing the other common denomination known as Shi’a.

Hinduism- The Hindu religion is the third-largest faith in the world and one of the oldest. About 80% of the population of India and Nepal are Hindu, but adherents live in dozens of countries, including the U.S. Hinduism is a complex system of philosophies and rituals. The practice of yoga and concepts such as dharma, karma and samsara originate in Hinduism. The largest Hindu denominations are Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism and Smarta.

Buddhism– Founded in India around the 5th century BCE, Buddhism is practiced around the world, although about half of all Buddhists live in China. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the Awakened One, Buddhism focuses on overcoming suffering through an understanding of the true nature of reality and self, as well as leading an ethical life of nonviolence. The main denominations of Buddhism are Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism.

Judaism. The U.S. has the third-highest population of Jews in the world, behind only Israel and Gibraltar. A monotheistic faith, the teachings of Judaism are contained in The Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, as well as supplemental oral traditions.  The three most popular branches of Judaism are Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and Reform Judaism.

Chinese traditional religions. More people in China follow a traditional or “folk” religion than any other faith. It can include elements of different religions, regional practices handed down for generations, as well as elements of Daoism. Common threads in all of them include the concepts of heaven, veneration of ancestors and a belief in the rational order of nature.

And that’s just scratching the surface. Other popular religions include Sikhism, Taoism, Shinto, African traditional faiths, and many smaller ethnic religions. Even belief systems that aren’t necessarily practiced as a religion anymore still provide the foundation for many cultural practices (in the same way an atheist in the U.S. will still participate in the traditions of Christmas).

Important Holidays for Non-Christians

A list of non-Christian holidays could become exceptionally long, but the following are a handful of annual events deeply important to people who practice non-Christian faiths.

Ramadan– In the Islamic faith, Ramadan is a month of fasting each day between sunrise and sunset, as well as visiting mosques, giving to charity and doing good deeds. Laylat al-Qadr occurs near the end of Ramadan and marks the night Muslims believe Allah revealed the first verses of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. In 2022, Ramadan is from April 2 to May 1.

Diwali- This Hindu festival of lights lasts for five days and celebrates the victory of good over evil. It typically occurs between mid-October and mid-November.

Wesak– Otherwise known as Buddha’s Birthday, this is one of the biggest celebrations for Buddhists. It occurs on the first full moon day in May. Temples are typically decorated with flowers and lights. Some communities hold large celebrations and parades.

Rosh Hashanah– This marks the Jewish New Year and begins 10 days of penitence (teshuvah) that culminates on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On Yom Kippur, observant Jews do not eat or drink.

Lunar New Year- Celebrated in China, Vietnam, Korea – three countries that rank among the Top 10 nations of origin for U.S. immigrants – as well as Taiwan and other Southeast Asian countries, the Lunar New Year celebration shifts each year but is held in late January or early February. The festival dates back 4,000 years in China. While secular in nature, it draws traditions from a variety of faiths, including Buddhism and Taoism. One of the best-known traditions is giving money in special red envelopes, called hongbao. It’s a cultural tradition practiced by secular and religious people alike.