The world is intertwined today, much more than it was when I was coming out of school. Because of that, you really need to have a deep understanding of cultures around the world. I have learned to not just appreciate this but celebrate it. The thing that makes the world interesting is our differences, not our similarities.
-Tim Cook, CEO of Apple
The winter holidays create simple and nearly effortless opportunities for socializing and bonding for your employees during company parties and work-place celebrations. Company leaders, however, have valid reasons to dread this time of year. Workers can take offense at seemingly harmless observances, leading to awkwardness, discomfort, hurt feelings, or possibly even charges of religious discrimination. Attempting to mitigate this by not celebrating any holiday in the office may likely cause more issues.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the freedom of religion by barring laws impeding the free exercise of religion for its citizens or establishing a national religion. The First Amendment enforces the “separation of church and state,” yet it does not exclude religion from public life. From the colonial era to present, religion plays a significant role in the United States (History.com, 2018). With a country founded on the principle of religious freedom, it seems to be more and more important to celebrate our differences as well as our similarities.
The focus of conversations surrounding diversity in the workplace leans toward the cognitive side of the equation, meaning difference is mostly described as different ways of thinking. Expanding your discussion to include each person’s unique perspective is just as important as embracing a variety of thoughts. Embracing religious and spiritual differences in your employees is essential to unlocking the full possibility of thought diversity (Chiu, 2018). Proactively thinking of religious diversity in the workplace as a strength rather than a disturbance will likely begin a culture change of inclusion that will ultimately benefit your organization.
Diversity: The art of thinking independently together.
It is reasonable to assume that societal and cultural influences deeply affect employee values and behaviors. Each person is naturally unique with life experiences and thoughts that are not like others of that same group, even if the experiences are the same. Understand that within each group, whether religious, cultural, or interest-based, reside individuals with different backgrounds and schools of thought. Harnessing that power of thinking for the benefit of your organization will give your company an advantage over your competitors.
Recognize that there are pitfalls to an inclusive organization, as well. To communicate well with diverse individuals requires us to recognize and then possibly confront our own (conscious or unconscious) biases. Begin with the understanding that everyone is biased, and this doesn’t make us evil or wrong. It just is. The trick is to provide opportunities for your workers to overcome their biases through education and teamwork (Burrell, Safi, Rahim, Justice, & Walker, 2010).
It’s never too late to give up your prejudices.
-Henry David Thoreau
The key, according to diversity and inclusion expert Mary Frances Winters, is to use current conversations and make them “more productive, supportive, and inclusive, leaving people feeling whole and ultimately resulting in better teamwork, productivity, and engagement” (2017). This time of the year offers excellent opportunities to use those current conversations. Ask your employees to share their religious beliefs and cultural values. Consider creating an inclusion day where everyone is encouraged to bring in symbols of their faith or society and then visit as many of your employees as you can; ask questions to show that you are interested and listening. Plan your holiday celebrations to include as many different religions and cultures as possible. Stay away from religiously sacred days.
The workplace provides us an opportunity to represent an untapped competitive advantage through a diversity of thought. This diversity of thought establishes creativity and ingenuity which then produces differentiation by design®. Take time to encourage dialogue about deeply held beliefs to tear down walls and build bridges. Differences need not be eliminated or repressed; affirm the right to dispute and help others celebrate diversity rather than turn away from something different.