HR helping to keep the faith – whatever that may be

The diversity of New Zealand’s population means an increasing number of employees from minority religions are entering the workforce. HRM looks at how HR can accommodate the intersection of work and worship.

HR helping to keep the faith – whatever that may be
In New Zealand, the divide between the sacred and the secular has traditionally been a strong one, especially when it comes to religion in the workplace.

But as the country’s diversity grows, so does the number of employees from what are considered to be minority religions in New Zealand and the line is likely to become increasingly blurred.

“For a number of the minority religions – and I’m using the term minority based on fewer numbers of people as compared to the majority religions – work and worship and their religion is a part and parcel of who they are,” Edwina Pio, professor of diversity at AUT’s business and law school, told HRM.

“They are intertwined so it’s rather difficult for people to leave parts of themselves out of the workplace when they come to work.”

Professor Pio wrote a book called Work & Worship, in which she looked at five minority religions in New Zealand – Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Zoroastrians and Indian Christians.

They may have small followings in this country, but people from such religions have made their mark on the world stage – Queen singer Freddie Mercury was a Zoroastrian and Hotmail founder Sabeer Bhatia is Hindu.

“Each of these religions constitute less than three per cent in terms of their numbers, but I think employers find it a bit challenging to deal with these religions because they are not sure what to do and whether they should do anything about it.

“If, for example, it’s the month of Ramadan, do you give people time off because they are fasting? Do you change their work? Should you change their work? If you have a woman who wears a headscarf, should you employ her as a receptionist or a consultant? Would she be accepted or would she not? A Sikh man who wears a turban, what about health and safety? Should you get a special turban if you have to wear a helmet?”

Professor Pio said there was no one-size-fits-all solution, but employers could look at a number of areas, including crafting diversity policies to include awareness of different religions.

“In New Zealand, we have a much greater awareness for gender, for sexual orientation, but for religion, people prefer not to engage with that or they push it under the carpet.

“Of the organisations that I interviewed, many had diversity policies but very few had anything about religion in there. It’s a growing concern, something that needs to be addressed.”

Talent management was also an important area.

“If companies are looking, for example, at getting into halal markets, from a business angle, it makes sense to have people who understand those markets.

“What kinds of people do we recruit into the organisation and more importantly, how do we progress them?  A lot of the western countries have aging populations. Who will be the people of the future? The younger populations do exist in countries that are referred to as developing countries and emerging economies.”

Employers could also look at “engaging voice” – giving minority religions a voice in the organisation and augmenting media, both internal and external, to create greater awareness of things like religious festivals, holidays and customs.  

In the learning and development space, employers could use induction programmes to introduce ideas around religious diversity.

The accommodation of religion in the workplace was a two-way street, said Professor Pio, and employees from different countries also needed to adapt to New Zealand culture.

“Employees also need to be able to adapt, to understand, to integrate. One can always say, ‘In a Muslim country, we would have something different’. Of course you would, but the point is that you are not in a Muslim country and while there are certain things that are a given, many of the other things one has to adapt to.”

Do you think diversity policies should include religion?

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