“A new study reveals that (…) religious inclusion has overwhelmingly been left out of corporate diversity initiatives. This is despite research showing the world is becoming more religiously diverse and faith continuing to be a core identity for the vast majority of workers worldwide,” explains Religious Freedom & Business Foundation President Brian J. Grim.
Employees may choose to express their religiosity in varying degrees of demonstrations and demands. Each employee thus negotiates with his or her different identities. One option is to decide to reveal, or not, his or her beliefs with the risk of being stigmatized. Another option is to assert one’s atheism. At the other end of the continuum, another posture could be to adopt radicalized behaviours.
Religious issues in the workplace have been relegated to a submerged dimension of the iceberg of diversities
Therefore, companies are potentially confronted with various religious facts, ranging from personal demands (absences, prayer time, etc.) to transgressive ones (refusal to shake hands, to receive orders, etc.). These facts have long been hidden. They were considered a ”taboo subject”, particularly in countries attached to secularism like France, where corporate management also tends not to interfere with the affairs of the church(es). Thus, religious issues in the workplace have been relegated to a submerged dimension of the iceberg of diversities.
However, companies have been forced to act. The latest Baromètre du Fait Religieux en Entreprise study (2019) underlined that more than 70% of the responding companies had regularly or occasionally encountered religious situations to manage during the year, compared to 44% in 2014. More than half of these various manifestations of employees’ religiosity required managerial interventions in 2019 (a quarter in 2014).
This subject is thus at the core of “sensitive” Human Resources Management fields, where actions and analysis are delicate. But how have companies dealt with these managerial challenges? What have they done in terms of processes and practices?
A significant evolution of management practices in French companies
In our last academic publication, we analysed the data we collected as researchers as well as exchange facilitators in a professional think-tank gathering 26 of the biggest French companies. During 12 meetings over a period of three years, we shared experiences, benchmark actions and experimented new tools. Our data analysis highlights that these companies have all followed a similar process:
- Step 1 – Astonishment: the emergence of these demands initially left companies baffled. Their first reaction was often to circumvent or deny these questions. Diversity? Some managers declared “we are powerless” or “we are paralyzed by this issue”.
- Step 2 – Support on from legal references: many companies (mainly large ones) were looking for the legal rules that could allow them to deal with these religious facts. Since the principle of secularism (laïcité in French) does not apply in the context of private companies, the legal pillars identified by companies are: The freedom to believe or not to believe (according to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and article L. 1121-1 of the French Labour Code), and to manifest their beliefs (Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights). Finally, equal treatment (Article 1 of the French Constitution of 1958 and EU Council Directive 2000/78/EC), and the fact that employees must not be discriminated against for their beliefs (Article L. 1132-1 of the Labour Code).
- Step 3 – Production of internal references: guidelines and best practices were drawn up as early as the 2000s in the United States, with associations to support managers, help to prevent all forms of proselytizing, and preserve the health and safety of employees.
- Step 4 – Production of control rules: a growing number of organizations have decided to formalize their practices and responses by developing management tools. Guides dedicated to the subject are often drawn up combining reminders of legal principles with concrete situations and questions/answers for dealing with religious facts. Organizations also deploy a variety of actions, including training, to raise awareness of these questions and help answer them.
All these companies have recognized that the point of departure of their actions was quite the same: the compliance with legal rules, the development of an inclusive culture or the reaction after a special event.
An exemplary process
When they designed systems for managing religious facts, companies relied on complementary actions.
- First, they placed some tools at the centre of their systems. Depending on the case, they chose to produce a charter, guidelines or to use an existing guide. In all cases, these management tools consisted of legal reminders and role-playing for proximity managers. A formalized tool thus appears necessary to characterize the policies and practices initiated and those to be adopted in the future.
- Secondly, all companies implemented trainings in order to help managers understand the context (especially legal), organize assessments or raise awareness of some sensitive issues (radicalization, for example). This is sometimes carried out online, via serious games, short videos on certain subjects (such as secularism), and provides a forum for exchanges between managers, enabling them to break out of the isolation they sometimes feel when faced with these situations.
- Finally, these tools and practices were associated with contextualized diffusion modes depending on the company. For example, a question and answer game or multiple choice questions were sometimes used to facilitate the appropriation of these tools. In most of the companies concerned, this dissemination was gradual and sometimes also optional.
Including all stakeholders
Through the analysis of these big French companies’ cases, we showed that the management of religious diversity was taken with caution by executive management teams – including CEOs -, and was co-designed by many stakeholders (diversity/legal/security/HR directions, project managers, trade unions and external experts). These processes were included in a long-term temporal dynamic, several years for many of them, that appeased and homogenized the management of religious diversity at work.
Our research has managerial implications for companies wishing to set up or develop actions to manage religious diversity at work, inciting them to think about this process in a systemic way, to go beyond a vision often focused on a tool (be it think tanks) and initiated by mimetism. It underlines the need for them to act with caution and to adopt bottom-up as well as inclusive approaches.
Géraldine Galindo is Full Professor in the Management Department on the Paris campus, where she teaches Human Resources Management. She is the Director of the Factory for the Future chair, as well as responsible for French HRM classes in the MiM program. Her research focuses on HRM and innovation, as well as diversity management.
Ewan Oiry is Professor in the Human Resources Management department at ESG-UQAM (Université du Québec à Montréal’s Ecole des sciences de la gestion) and member of the CEREGE (Centre de Recherche en Gestion) of the IAE de Poitiers. He is particularly interested in the links between management systems and the work of employees and managers, team dynamics and the strategy of organisations.
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