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How to manage religious diversity in project teams

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Religious identity involves closely connecting with the inner sense of who we are as individuals; it has profound behaviour implications. Individuals for whom religious identity is salient often prefer to express their religious identity at work. But when this desire is not accommodated, respected or supported by the workplace it has detrimental effect on work behaviour, wellbeing and work outcomes. 

We spoke to Dr YingFei Héliot, a Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at the University of Surrey who recently led and published a study about religious identity in the workplace. The study alerts leaders and human resource departments to pay attention to religious identity in the workplace. “This study identified religious identity as a neglected facet that is often a net benefit in contemporary organisations.  When individuals are supported with a truly inclusive and respective work environment to express their religious identity in the workplace, they thrive and experience better workplace wellbeing.  Essentially, the psychological safety that an organisation provides all of its members is of critical importance, and a key factor in workplace wellbeing and effectiveness.”

In a world that is also increasingly connected, and virtual teams are becoming commonplace in project work environments, it’s vital to understand and be aware of different cultures and beliefs. Dr Héliot highlighted that “several wellbeing practices can be applied in the workplace to allow for religious inclusion”.

Based on the findings from the paper, Dr Héliot and colleagues recommend the following ways in which project professionals and team leaders can support their team member’s desire of religious expression while maintaining a broader climate of inclusion: 

  • Be aware of differences in religious practice while understanding any legal obligations to accommodate religious expression.
  • Commit to mutual respect and individual dignity in the workplace; forming organisational practices that allow employees to express elements of themselves without fear of adverse implications.
  • Address conflicts between personal and organisational values on the job and how these might be resolved. Develop a formal programme or guidance to help managers and leaders learn how to respond appropriately to employees' or team member’s concerns about religious expression, as well as any accommodations. Developing a support mechanism in a written format can help to communicate examples of how to respond appropriately.
  • Offer training that promotes links between religious and occupational identities. For example, through conversations over lunch time, celebrating differences, short and informal sessions on diversity. An interactive session can help everyone understand their own and each other’s religious identity through activities such as a spiritual eco-map. There is a diagrammatic tool that can help assess religious beliefs which not only opens the conversation but is a self-reflective process. It would enable project teams to ensure that team members’ and potentially clients’ spiritual needs are being met by someone who feels comfortable and competent in doing so.
  • Offer respect and dignity to integrate religious identity at work by accepting the right to religious expression in the workplace for all organisational members whether they have religious values or not.

Respecting and celebrating differences in the workplace are useful practices to allow for religious inclusion. “The key idea is to have collective organisational conversation on these issues on a continuous basis. Over time this will create truly inclusive organisational culture where stakeholders and team members are engaged and supported as much as possible” says Dr Héliot.

The key message to convey is that religious identity is an inherent facet of workplace diversity, one that organisations and project professionals need to be prepared to address and understand, especially in our virtual world. Not only will this enable better team member wellbeing, but it can offer benefit to any organisation and project.

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