Interfaith at Work: 4 Tips for Navigating the Multifaith Workplace

If we work a 40-hour workweek, we are spending at least 2,000 hours per year with our colleagues. This often includes time over coffee, lunch, or even getting drinks. Over the course of a year, varieties of holidays, personal crises, and wardrobe changes make their appearances.

Managers, leaders, and those who would like to be good cubicle neighbors often wonder how to approach religious difference.

Is it OK to ask about this? Better to avoid it? Are we supposed to leave our religious and ethical commitments at home, or is it OK to be our whole selves at work?

As our workplaces continue to become more diverse, we have the opportunity to reflect on our own perspectives, commit to being respectful and collaborative in professional spaces, and learn about building vibrant civic spaces.

Here are 4 tips for navigating religious and cultural difference that will allow you to be a good colleague, share appropriately, and build successful professional relationships.

First, understand that you aren't entitled to know anything. While it might seem innocuous to ask questions about colleagues' hair, dress, food, family, or vacation, it's important to remember that asking personal questions can feel invasive. In addition, our own curiosity about something doesn't mean our colleagues need to share.

If you're curious about someone's dress, holidays, food, or practices, and you don't know them well, there are other ways to increase your knowledge. In many cases, Googling, "what foods are OK to eat during Lent?" (or for other religious or cultural traditions) can be a quick and easy way to gain information.

Also consider first asking others from within your own family or religious or cultural group for information. When we repeatedly ask those in a minority position to "teach" us about their beliefs and practices, we unnecessarily burden them. No one should have to be a teacher for her own entire tradition or culture.

You may find, however, that if you ask your women's book group at the synagogue, "I was wondering if anyone knows anything about Ramadan," that you get information from your own social networks that you can apply at work, in a way that respects your colleague's privacy and keeps him or her from becoming your workplace's religious expert.

That said, many organizations are seeking ways to highlight religious and cultural diversity, through mentioning holidays in company newsletters, providing opportunities for individuals or groups to share meals or practices, or even providing forums or panels to discuss what we have in common and how we are diverse.

Next, check in with your HR person. Increasingly, workplaces are building offices of diversity or inclusion, and seeking opportunities to educate their staffs on exploring difference with respect. Your organization might have resources or FAQ sheets on religious and cultural difference, or be able to use your questions, hopes, and concerns to facilitate longer-term training and education opportunities. Your HR colleagues can also share guidelines and best practices for talking about difference and having conversations with respect that feel appropriate and welcoming for everyone.

Never assume. It's easy to assume that people who look like us must believe and act like us. In the US, if you live in a region where Easter decorations fill the grocery stores and restaurants are booked for Easter Sunday, it can feel natural (and even hospitable!) to ask your colleagues what they're doing for their kids' egg hunts. You may have had many classmates in college who were from India, and are Hindu, and so you might naturally (but mistakenly) assume a new colleague from Rajasthan is also Hindu. However, people are rooted in spiritual and ethical practices that come from a variety of places.

In addition, many people identify as humanist or atheist, even if their families of origin did practice a religious or spiritual tradition. More and more Americans are from interfaith families, or feel a sense of hybridity with more than one tradition.

Practice good communication and etiquette skills and use "I statements," talk about your own tradition, and take care to speak positively about those who are different than you. This allows others to share if they want to, and to learn about you without needing to immediately disclose anything personal. Relationships go a long way to fostering mutual dialogue and learning. Work to be a good, trustworthy colleague, and the collaboration and learning can grow naturally.

Finally, it's OK not to talk about religion or culture. Think about the difference between asking, "Why do Muslim women cover their head?" and "That's a really beautiful scarf." When you have equal standing with a colleague, and a warm working relationship, it can be natural to compliment another person's dress. But a pointed question about religion--especially one that assumes religions are monolithic--is never a good idea.

Listen to colleagues and leaders in your organization who do a good job making others feel respected and valued, and notice the topics of conversation they follow.

We all have various levels of comfort talking about our lives outside of work. Sometimes our colleagues become personal friends, and often times we feel more comfortable keeping our personal and professional lives distinct.

In vibrant workplaces--just as in all healthy relationships--bringing our passions and interests into conversation can be positive. Working with others to practice balancing respectful and genuine conversations about our personal beliefs can be helpful, but making sure everyone feels comfortable, safe, and respected at work is essential.