Updated: Dec 5, 2020
Most companies are nervous about faith at work. They imagine worst-case scenarios: Will employees proselytize and make an uncomfortable work environment for others? What if religious views conflict with our core values or other diversity groups? If we allow one faith group, what about the 15 other faith groups that might pop up after that? How would we support them all? What if the largest faith dominates, making smaller faiths feel overshadowed? What if employees argue over theology? Will we lose trust with customers that don't support faith in the workplace?
These are legitimate concerns. And they deserve to be heard. That's where you come in.
Convincing your company to allow faith in the workplace begins with empathy. Our company leaders are in a tough spot. Faith at work is still new, with only about 20% of Fortune 100 companies overtly supporting faith at work. But the movement is increasing quickly, and companies will have to address it sooner or later. And only when your leaders feel heard will they be open to your data — data showing that the benefits of allowing faith in the workplace overwhelmingly outweigh the risks, that the risks are easy to mitigate with the proper protocols, and that blocking faith at work leads to far worse consequences, like employee attrition, reduced productivity, reduced sales, and even litigation.
Whether companies are ready or not, the time has come to begin the discussion. And if you want to be part of that transformation, you'll need an effective pitch. Here are 20 best practices I've gathered from over four years of helping my company and dozens of others start effective faith groups.
20 Best Practices for Pitching a Faith Group at work
TIP 1: Gather other employees of faith: You’re not in this alone. See if other employees of faith have already started this process or if anyone is interested in joining you now. Search your employee network for keywords such as faith and prayer.
Tip 2: Gather diverse perspectives: Whether you're interested in an interfaith group, a faith-specific group, or some other group format, you'll be most successful if you partner with employees of different faith backgrounds. This will demonstrate a united front and reduce fears of conflict.
Best Practice 2: Do Your Research
Tip 3: Research your company’s past religious events: See if they have already held events related to religion of some kind, such as Buddhist or Indigenous meditation events, Eid or Holi celebrations, or religious speakers. This will help your company see that they already have a precedent for effective faith expression.
Tip 4: Research your company’s faith-based customers: Your company may very well have customers that are churches, temples, mosques, or ministries. Gather stories about how these organizations use your products to help others to show the importance of faith inclusion.
Tip 5: Gather statistics: Study the business benefits of faith at work. See Silicon Valley's Surprising Business Booster: Faith and Religious Inclusion Helps Businesses and Economies Grow. Gather specific examples that show how honoring faith diversity boosts loyalty, morale, retention, productivity, recruiting, company branding, and innovation.
Tip 6: Gather with stories: Talk to people of faith at your company. Gather stories about people who feel scared to reveal their faith at work and how that negatively impacts their work. Then find stories of employees who feel safe and how that befits their work. Prepare your own story. See tips for shaping your story here.
Tip 7: Gather industry benchmarks: It will be helpful for leaders to see one of these groups in action, so feel free to share this Faithforce overviews article and 15-minute recording. Show them that 20% of fortune 100 companies have formal faith groups, including industry leaders like Apple, Google, and Facebook. Remind them of the power of being a trailblazer, rather than a late adopter. Employees and customers are looking for companies that are faith friendly. They expect your company to have a faith strategy.
Tip 8: Gather legal examples: Educate yourself about different companies in your industry who suffered consequences for not supporting employees of faith. Review the hundreds of examples of religious discrimination lawsuits reported at the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and find 2-3 examples from your own industry. You won't likely have to use these examples, but it may be helpful to have them at the ready.
Tip 9: Research your company’s Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) and HR policies related to religion: Search for the word "religion" in your employee handbook and any HR or Equality training content. Familiarize yourself with employee rights to religious expression. Gather this not to demand your own rights, but rather to show that you recognize that religious expression cannot cross the line into harassment.
Meet with Diversity Leaders
Tip 10: Get a meeting scheduled: When you have all of your ducks in a row, try to get a meeting with a decision-maker in your HR or DEI department. A one-on-one is often a good place to start so you can feel out the situation. If a larger meeting is planned, bring in 1-2 others from a different faith, denomination, race, or age backgrounds to demonstrate the range of employees this topic impacts. .
Tip 11: Listen: Be prepared with your research, but spend most of the time listening and mirroring back what you’re hearing from them and even ask for additional details. Say: "I hear you that..." "That makes a lot of sense that..." "So you're saying..." "Can you say more about that?"
Tip 12: Bring up potential worries: If they haven’t shared their concerns, bring up the topic for them. They're likely thinking of these fears but may not know how to voice them for fear of offending you. Starting that conversation for them gives them safety to share how they feel. Begin with: “If I were in your shoes, I might be worried that..." "Some companies worry..." or "You might be wondering about whether..." or "I don't know about you, but when I first thought about this topic, I was worried that..." See the next bullet for a list of common fears. Be sure to acknowledge that these are "legitimate" fears.
Tip 13: List common worries: Voicing common fears shows that you understand the risks involved. It also provides a sense of relief since they didn't have to bring it up. These are six fears that company leaders often have: (1) Will employees of faith use the group as a platform to proselytize? (2) Will having a faith group open the door to debates between faiths? (3) Will faith groups say anything anti-LGBTQ? (4) Will the Christian group overshadow other faith groups due to its often larger population? (5) Will opening the door put the company at risk for litigation? (6) If we allow one faith group, will we need to allow (and fund) dozens of other faith groups that may come along in the future?
Tip 14: Share employee stories: Once your DEI leaders feel heard (and only then), explain that you’ve been talking to Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Christian, and Atheist employees. Ask if the leaders would like to hear what you’ve learned. If you’ve done your job in building trust, they will be curious. Stories that work best involve cases where an employee has felt the need to hide, such as Muslims who hide to pray every day or Christians holding secret prayer meetings.
Propose a Mitigation Plan
Allay their fears by proposing some basic Dos and Don'ts that will mitigate problems. Always start with the Don'ts.
Tip 15: Propose these Don'ts
Don't proselytize: The number one rule of effective faith groups at work is no proselytizing, which most companies define as pushing a faith perspective on someone who isn't interested.
DON'T be theologically Divisive: Faith groups exist to support the needs of underrepresented employee groups. No part of that involves comparing or debating theological texts. Faith groups may share the history of traditions, but they won't debate the veracity of the Quran verses the Bible verses the Bhagavad Gita.
DON'T take political stances:: People may want your group to take a stance on various political topics, but that is not the purpose of a faith group. Explicitly clarify that your group would not take stances on political topics.
Tip 16: Propose these Dos
DO educate: Many companies host panels of employees from different faiths to share about how they celebrate holidays and observe traditions, such as fasting and prayer. These are educational but not preachy.
DO give back: One thing all faiths agree on is compassion for those in need. Company faith groups focus on philanthropic efforts, generating donations and volunteer hours for impactful faith-based charities around the world.
DO celebrate: Many companies have huge celebrations for Easter, Eid, Diwali, Holi, Purim, Sukkoth, and many other holidays. Employees of all faith backgrounds organize the events and celebrate together.
DO honor: In the wake of faith-related attacks around the world, many companies come together to host vigils for impacted employees, organized by people from different backgrounds. See "Faithforce: A Place of Healing."
Identify a Next Step
Tip 17: Summarize: Help wrap up the conversation by summarizing what you talked about. The bottom line is that employees of faith are in hiding right now, which impacts employee morale and our bottom line. Faith groups come with risks, but those risks can be easily mitigated.
Tip 18: Keep the door open: Your goal is to simply keep the conversation going. Ask: What is one next step we could take? Could we meet in a few weeks to re-assess? Do: If any action items came up, take ownership of following up and specify when you'll get back to them.
Tip 19: Be patient: Your company may not be ready to move forward immediately. Know that you have seeded some thoughts, and you may need to let them germinate. Set reasonable expectations with yourself and celebrate having the meeting at all.
Tip 20: Forgive yourself: Did you stumble in the meeting? Not say everything you wanted to say? Be gentle with yourself. This is hard stuff and likely not something you've done before. Take heart that God is at work, has a much bigger picture in mind than you can envision, and will bless this step of faith and courage.
“Sometimes the smallest step in the right direction ends up being the biggest step of your life. Tiptoe if you must, but take a step.” — Naeem Callaway, CEO of Get Out The Box
Pick one tip from the list above that you can take action on. How about finding allies? Or researching past company events, gathering industry benchmarks, or outlining your Dos and Don'ts. Partner with someone who can hold you accountable and set a date for when you'll complete that action.
About Sue Warnke:
Sue is the Global Communications Chair for Faithforce, Salesforce's faith-based employee resource group. She is a vocal advocate for faith inclusion in the workplace. See more at Leanership.org. Her words are her own.