Accommodating Different Faiths Begins from Within

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Years ago, my Somali colleague Abdi Yunis and I were deciding how to help the managers at an Ottawa corporation learn how to accommodate its Muslim staff.  Abdi’s idea was to include a prayer demonstration during our training.  I will never forget how the management crowded around as Abdi talked about the ablutions, laid down his prayer rug and prayed — all the while explaining what he was saying and doing and why.

The silence in the room was palpable — and the onlookers were forever changed. The veil of mystery had been lifted … somewhat.  Abdi’s decision to “instruct” through interactive demonstration was bang on. His use of a managerial context to support his demonstration added meaning: staff’s need to pray at specific times was akin to that of the CEO calling a meeting at a certain time (one could not say ‘no’ to the CEO) and Abdi pointed upward to demonstrate his adherence to his spiritual CEO.

As we become more and more diverse as a city, and the customs, traditions and values of our mosaic of cultures make their way into our workplaces, it is important to accommodate people’s faiths. Employees have both a human and legal right to this accommodation, even though for us at the other end, we may not know how best to make that happen.

In trying to accommodate, we usually miss a step — the education piece. If people understand the backbone of a faith (albeit the 101 version), they will understand the behaviours, traditions and practices of their fellow employees.  

And, it’s not too much to learn about ALL of the faiths in your workplace. Organizations only have to begin within … to look to their own staff members, who are often the best teachers. New Canadians want their faiths to be understood; they do not want to live and practise quietly on the outskirts of our society.  

A first step is inviting a member of a faith you are accommodating to speak to you in HR or at lunch-and-learn sessions. Structure what you want to know and allow those you are accommodating to be your teachers. If a particular issue comes up repeatedly, ask the employee who acts as your cultural interpreter (CI) to provide his or her perception. Share views and integrate workable suggestions (slowly) into existing practices. A CI can also help to stay abreast of information the organization should be aware of (for example, Ramadan starts on July 9th  2013, so staff will be fasting and fatigued until they adjust to the fast).

Other ideas:  

1) Use lunch-and-learn times to coincide with the faith-based holidays and traditions of your staff. Encourage staff to share food and some typical practices during that holiday.  

2)  Obtain an interfaith calendar to know in advance when the holidays that your staff members practise take place.

3) Inclusiveness means to acknowledge the faiths within your group, not to take away from those that are there (for example, instead of dropping the Christmas tree, make sure to add some recognition of other staff holidays). Most people feel comfortable honouring other faiths if their own is acknowledged.

The added bonus to these strategies is the sense of inclusiveness created by allowing learning to arise from within … doing so is a benchmark quality of excellent diverse workplaces.

While we accept multiple faiths in principle, we are still new at moving beyond acceptance to understanding and respect. In the workplace, this will be achieved effectively through interactive understanding. Remember Abdi’s prayer demonstration and how knowledge inspired respect.

Among the many rewards of faith-based accommodation are staff inclusion, retention and productivity.

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Nancy Mark

Nancy is the lead facilitator of Hire Immigrants Ottawa’s cross-cultural competency training for employers.   

Hire Immigrants Ottawa works with local employers to help them effectively hire and integrate skilled immigrants into their workplaces.  

For more information about booking a sponsored article, please email Terry Tyo.

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